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How to design and shape workplace culture – part 2

How to design and shape workplace culture - part 2
(this is part 2 of the posting, part 1 can be found here)

Periods of possibilities

Periods of flux and uncertainty give opportunity to change organizational culture with less push back and in shorter time. On a general level such periods happen when the:

  • company is founded
  • organization is in a crisis
  • organization is challenged


This is when the organizational system is trying to make sense of its own purpose and the surrounding world. During any period of sensemaking people accept or

embrace changes to the belief systems( core values)  and boundary systems (risks to be avoided and non acceptable behaviours) that are the gas and the brake in the

Simons Levers of Control

Simons Levers of Control

organization.Harvard Professor Robert Simons created a model in the 90ies that we can use to visualize how actions in the organization create and shape culture.


First we have the Belief systems – these are the core values of the organization these are often of the positive kind (i.e. the gas pedal of the organization)


Second is the Boundary Systems (i.e. the brake pedal of the organization and the rules of the road) These can be safety standards and guidelines, Workplace harassment guidelines etc… What they do have in common is that they create a map of non acceptable behavior in the organization.


Third is the Diagnostic Control System (i.e. the dashboard and scoring/reward system).




Birth of a culture

Culture is set by the key people when the organization is created. Those key people can be the founders or some other trusted people. In a smaller organization is the behavior of the founders and other trusted people that shape the culture of course in conjunction with the core values that are articulated but primarily it will be the behavior of the founders, leadership team and trusted people that gets interpreted and cemented. If there is a clash between those behaviours and the communicated core values then the core values of the company will lose.

When I visited a quite new company (it was 5-6 years old) asked questions about how things got done my hosts explained that their core values gave guidance in how to make decisions about day to day things as well as longer perspective. The core values stipulated simplicity, happy customers and speed with quality.  This meant that people were focusing on creating an IT infrastructure that was simple and possible to change, customer issues always got high priority as well as new functionality that delights the customer. Speed with quality ultimately led to a restructuring of how the organization worked from waterfall mode to agile valuestream organization.  Here is was clear to people how their core values supported their day to day work – this is an example of values that are aligned with the organizational needs and where the understanding of these values has happened.  There can be some challenges when you go about communicating what your values mean but it can be summarized by a few animated stick figures and lets go with that approach.

Unilever has created a great video about changing behaviors of people which is applicable when setting and shaping culture in organizations too. (yes, it has funny stickfigures)
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*Trusted people refer to anyone in the organization that people trust and that takes active part In communicating behaviors, rules and values.

Culture, the secret sauce

An experiment with four active battalions in the US army showed that commander expectations matched actions in only 34% of the cases.  There is an great insight in this and a lesson that the US army started learning in the 90ies.  The insight is – It is hard to communicate exactly what should happen in a complex world it applies in war and in world of business. Prussian military learned this lesson at the hands of Napoleon and came to the conclusion that in order to act quickly with agility.  Leadership must be distributed to handle a complex fast moving environment. This could only happen if

  • people were well trained
  • culture supported distributed leadership
  • culture supported experimentation and learning
  • you had trust in your people

The sum of all this became known as Auftragstaktik in the German army and can be explained as “mission-oriented command.” It relies upon decentralized leadership and is the basis for decision-making at the lowest possible level, where the knowledge of the situation is always best. The same way all western armies of today study and apply auftragstaktik to their leadership and culture can be applied to other organizations. Actually there is a lot of similarities between the Agile movement in IT and the Lean Product Development movements with Auftragstaktik. In armies of Sweden and Finland the same concept existed and was applied already in the 80ies, in Sweden it was called “Agera i chefens anda” To-Act-In-the-Spirit-of-the-Commander.

But all of the learning, procedures and fancy words would not be able to carry this if the culture was not aligned with the goal of Auftragstaktik as is described in the analysis of part of the Canadian Army

super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence
“The Canadian Army suffers from classic symptomology of hierarchism. Have we been so blind to our failings that we need Dr. Jack Granatstein (3) and Desmond Morton (4) to describe them to us before we are able to recognize them? Laurence Peter (5) could have a field day rewriting The Peter Principle based on a study of our current career structure. The foci on conformity, measurable standards of behaviour and performance, stagnation of the incompetent rather than their removal, and the sidelining of the “supercompentent” are all classic indicators of this disease. The super-competent are those personnel who can execute any assigned task, but fail to conform to the hierarchical expectations of normalcy. They are tolerated (within limits) but not promoted by the hierarchy, and they get the ‘dirty’ jobs, the ones with associated risk to a career, because (a) they’ll get it done, (b) they are considered expendable by their conformist superior. Our career structure is based on promoting conformity, not competence. In fact, we have even achieved that state in which ” … super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence. Ordinary incompetence … is no cause for dismissal: it is simply a bar to promotion. Super-competence often leads to dismissal, because it disrupts the hierarchy, and thereby violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved.” – Capt M.M. O’Leary, The RCR


 Change and reshaping culture

As mentioned above there are periods when people are more accepting towards change and those periods happen when the organization is in crisis, is challenged or starting off. What leadership gives during these periods is vision, a goal , a common purpose and during these moments people are trying make sense of the world and our mental models are not sitting in concrete they are easier to mold, shift and reshape.

Changing culture needs people to adopt to the new way of thinking and looking at things and there seems to be tipping point for how many people need to adopt a new idea before it becomes mainstream. That number is 10%!

“Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals”

Even if the number would not be 100% correct it gives the following:

  • Reshaping culture is a contact sport of communication and acting your talk.
  • You need to recruit people that can shift the opinion of many other people if you want quick acceptance
  • You need some reason for the change

Example of creating a coordinating device that causes a period of change to be possible. A company that had a lot of harassment and bullying. Once the magnitude and severity was understood by the management, they created a coordinating device (i.e. the reason for change) this coordinating device was the companys survival on the marketplace, so much of energy in the company was spent on bullying that sometimes took form of sabotage. Communications between departments worsened as a result and customer orders slipped or were mispackaged with costly returns as a result.  It was a real threat towards the companys continued survival on the market. The first step was to design the coordinating device and the message for it.  Management felt that the current situation would lead to closing of the company and that was the message behind the change. The organization backed up all policies with discussions in each team about how to behave and how to act in the teams and what expectations they had towards each other and towards other teams and managers. This allowed all silent voices to be heard and a huge majority was not happy about the current situation but people believed it was just them and felt powerless. This created a huge majority of people that wanted to be treated decently at work and did not harass nor bully anyone. After all discussions management summarised all the discussions openly for the whole company and promised swift action towards any harassment and bullying and ended up walking the talk by firing a manager for several violations. The ringleaders behind serious bullying were called into discussion about their future in the organization and based on the outcome they were offered a severance package. Some people were reassigned to different teams which broke up some vicious group dynamics. In this case majority of the people did not want to work in this caustic culture but there was no arena for the silent majority to be visible neither were the current harassment practices effective so there was so real traction nor help to be had.  Management did bet on that they would get a majority of the people onboard with this change and created the systemic support mechanisms needed to sustain the change.


Powerful messages, all organizations have stories of what some people have done and are doing these become part of the organizational storytelling and can work to taking a value statement on paper and making it alive through people.

One such example comes from High Reliability Organization research by Karl Weick where he describes a case where the commander of an Navy aircraft carrier walks the flight deck with all deck hands and crew to secure it from small debrise that could otherwise get sucked into a jetengine or cause other problems. This is the commander of the whole carrier group and he is out on the deck with everyone else ensuring the safety of flight operations his action speaks louder than any words on the paper would do. On that ship everyone did walk the safety check from time to time – no exceptions.





Negative cultural patterns in organizations


Risk averse cultures or status quo cultures

I’m not describing organizations that operate in hazardious environments or where human lives are at stake. What is described are organizations that have a culture of risk aversion without balancing it with system of growth and progress throughout the whole organization. These places are masterful in spreading responsibility and accountability of anything into many different decisionmaking units. It can be described as decision by commitee, if you want to do something new or to change anything it is not enough to get a decision from the manager above that decision must for some reasons get clearence from HR, Security, Facilities and multiple governance boards. Anything and everything takes weeks and months to decide and act upon and normally the action is watered out so that it basically loses its purpose.  “We have a cosy place here don’t rock the boat”, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, “just go with the flow” is what you will hear in this organization and people behave politely while avoiding tough and needed if it is not about how to keep the status quo.  You will find this type of culture to some degree in larger matrix organizations unless they have a very strong foundation in improvement philosophies like Lean, Six Sigma etc. Good news are that it is possible to change this type of culture if you are ready to “rock the boat”. You need to identify what structural obstacles exist and whom are the principal voices of the current status quo situation and then identify possible explorers, pirates and intrapreneurs that can sustain the new culture once it starts to grow.  One factory belonging to a global organization did a transformation like this and improved performance with over 100% in the process. It meant quite many people left or switched roles completely where they no longer could stall or stop the new movement.  While it is completely possible to change such a culture it is a fulltime task of the whole company leadership structure and this during a period that is conductive to culture change.


Rewards rule the day

If people are rewarded for results without any consideration of how the results were accomplished then in some cases you are setting other systems out of play. A worst case scenario is that you will saturate your organization with people that value the short time perspective where better rewards are the goal as a side effect a caustic culture emerges. This type of organization has a lot of underlying conflicts, back stabbing and little collaboration. Think about what type of people leave the organization and what type of people thrive here.

if rewards rule the day

if rewards rule the day


To avoid this from happening It is important that the organization aligns and balances the reward system with the Belief and Boundary systems.





In a cultural vacuum every voice is heard

If you are an entreprenour and you do not think about what type of culture you want to have and what would be beneficial for your organization you have basically created a vacuum. If you happen to grow fast at any stage all the new people that you bring in will overwhelm the current seed to culture you have which is the way you and your founders behave and talk about things. But with influx of people you will no longer have face to face interactions with all people and there will be a case when a new person asks another quite new person about advise how to tackle something. Maybe it is how to sell to the customer and that advise might be in line with your thinking and wishes or it might be contrary to it.


In summary

  • Focus on behaviours of people in the organization if you want to understand the culture
  • Culture is designed and nurtured more like a plant rather than constructed and remodeled like a house
  • Align your Belief System, Boundary System and Diagnostic Control System to the culture you want and need
  • All groups of people grow an culture make sure it is a good one by actively designing and nurturing it
  • Culture is a contact sport. You need to communicate it and act like it
  • There are periods when it is easier to change culture in an organization. If you plan to change the culture make sure you create a need for change.

If you missed the first part it is here.

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