November 8, 2017

Zen and the Art of Culture Change

How do you get the ship out of the bottle? No ship. No bottle. No problem.

~Sensei William Gleason~

I recently attended Human Synergistics’ 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference in San Francisco. The presenters were professors, HR leaders, OD consultants, as well as CEOs and operating leaders.

Corporate culture was presented and discussed from multiple angles: What it is, how to measure it, how to change it, how to keep it aligned, whether you are in a start-up, in high-growth mode, or retrenching.

For me, the highlights of the conference included the opening and closing presentations by Dr. Ed Schein. Maybe this is not surprising as he literally wrote the book on the topic of this conference. Schein’s Organizational Culture and Leadership was originally published in 1985 and is on its fifth edition. Someone actively researching an issue for so long is bound to have some of the best insights.

With the recent financial industry scandals as a kind of backdrop, all the presenters were clear: Culture matters. But it is also a hard construct to define, hard to measure, and hard to successfully intervene on. Dr. Schein captured this feeling best when he said, “Organizational culture is a bottomless pit of questions and problems.”

Schein’s statement got a great laugh from the audience.

Now why is culture a bottomless pit of questions and problems? It probably starts with how difficult it is to define. The presenters talked about culture as seemingly any and everything, from a kind of organizational personality, to a set of aspirational operating principles, to something that can be graphed.

Dr. Schein clearly shares in the frustration: “I have no patience for words that don’t mean anything.” Though he wasn’t referring at the time to culture, per se, and though he wrote an entire book about culture, I got the sense, especially in light of some of his follow-up statements, that culture is probably one of those words he doesn’t have much patience for anymore.

Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization’s makeup and success—along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like… I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

~Lou Gerstner, Former CEO IBM

Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance

As the Gerstner quote captures, culture is something we have to pay attention to…but it still poses a quagmire of challenges. What are executives and practitioners to do?

Dr. Schein didn’t leave us twisting in the wind. He shined a light on a clear path out of the briar patch. His sagacious advice was to have conversations without using the word culture and without referring to culture problems.

Here is how: Start by being very specific about the organizational problem that needs to be addressed: What employee, customer, or shareholder outcomes are not where they need to be? Does there need to be more focus on great service? Innovation? Operating rigor? Is more teamwork needed to take on bigger challenges? etc.

Once the problem is specifically defined, ask which behaviors, present or absent, are contributing directly to this problem? Or, alternatively, which behaviors or lack thereof are preventing us from addressing the problem? Which behaviors would allow us to solve the problem?

Schein went on, “When you know what you want to quantify and why, the role of measurement in support of your intervention efforts become bell clear.” For those keeping score at home, this is a real win, as bell-like clarity is rare in the area of corporate culture.

It is a privilege to get a chance to hear Dr. Schein speak. The last time I heard him speak, it inspired me to write this article: Women in Leadership. Not Just Long Overdue, But in the Nick of Time.

Before sharing my take-aways on Dr. Schein’s recommendations, please allow me a brief aside. I had the good fortune of receiving my black belt in Aikido from Sensei William Gleason in Boston. Aikido often presents its practitioners with an interesting conundrum: How do you defend yourself against the strikes, grabs, and attacks of someone bigger and stronger than you?

Aikido is not Judo, and Sensei Gleason would constantly implore us: “Do not try to move the man [attacker]. Move yourself.” When bigger and stronger guys attacked him, he “moved himself,” and he tossed them like rag dolls. As these bigger guys were floating through space in an airborne ballet, Sensei Gleason would often be smiling and reciting one of his favorite Zen koan-like metaphors: “How do you get the ship out of the bottle? No ship. No bottle. No problem.” For me, Sensei Gleason’s recitation is the root of Dr. Schein’s perspective.

Here’s how: Schein is saying don’t start with culture. Don’t bother with a definition of culture, don’t worry about how to broadly measure the culture, and especially don’t engage in culture change just for the sake of it.

You start with the Why. What is the output-related problem the business needs to solve? Once you do that, if you determine that the culture of the organization may be contributing to the problem, then the culture probably needs to change. But, and this is key, you don’t change that culture by first trying to defining it broadly and measuring it broadly.

Why? Because you don’t need to: No ship. No bottle. No problem.

If you have to change the culture, you change it by narrowly focusing on changing the behaviors of the leaders that are affecting key organizational outcomes.

Why is this better? First, strategically, it is linked to outcomes. You are connecting a behavior that needs to change to an outcome the organization has to achieve. Change efforts can easily run out of gas when they are not connected to big, important corporate objectives. Starting with outcomes obviates that.

Second, with this approach you’re as focused as a fighter pilot. You are only trying to increase or eliminate a handful of behaviors.

Finally, while you can’t see culture, you can see behaviors. Because we can see them, we can define them. And if there is something we can clearly define, we can easily measure and intervene at the behavioral level.

I am guessing Dr. Schein’s stone-simple approach probably forced a few people to recalibrate their approaches, but just to make sure, he closed with this quip: “Change agents who think corporate culture change is hard might be doing it wrong.”

That remark got a big laugh too, but the peals of laughter here had a more nervous, I-resemble-that-remark, quality.

To close, if you are like me, you might be left scratching your head a bit about these two comments by Dr. Schein that caused all the laughter. On the one hand, culture is “a bottomless pit of questions and problems.” On the other, if you think this is hard, you “might be doing it wrong,” which makes culture change seem like not such a problem.

Isn’t it impossible for both of those ideas to be true?

Maybe. Or perhaps that’s just Dr. Schein’s version of “the sound of one hand clapping.”

Keep the conversation about culture going by sharing your comments below.

A version of this article originally appeared at CultureUniversity.comand I am honored to be involved in an exchange with those who care deeply about workplace cultures and the leaders who shape them.

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