Why Not to Focus on a Company’s Culture

In a transformation, do not focus on culture. Although culture is incredibly important, it is not something you can address directly. Rather, focus on the management system that helps to shift culture over time.

Culture is air; Management system is earth

The following is a paraphrase from Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions by David Mann.

Culture is important, but changing it directly is not possible. Culture is no more likely a target than the air we breathe. It is not something to target for change.  Culture is an idea arising from experience. That is, our idea of culture or a place or organization is a result of what we experience there. In this way a company’s culture is a result of how people collaborate with each other. Culture is critical and to change it you have to change your method of collaboration.

Focus on agreements, behaviors, specific expectations, tools and routines practices. Lean systems make this easier because they emphasize explicitly defined agreements and use tools to make the work and agreements visible.

Alignment is critical. This requires both what we’re all working towards and how we work together towards that.

This reminds me of a Scrum Gathering I was at a few years ago. This one had dealt particularly with trust. Most of the participants had bemoaned throughout the conference the difficulty of working with teams when trust didn’t exist. We were all in the dilemma of – how to get Scrum to work without trust, but getting trust into a culture was difficult and time consuming. At the end of the event we had everyone in a circle giving their final comments to the event. This circle talk mirrored the lack of trust in organizations and the difficulties we all faced. It was clear everyone felt this lack of trust was just part of many company’s culture and that culture was difficult to change.

When my turn came to give my final words I half-jokingly said we (meaning my company not the community) needed to find better customers (those who had established trust already and wanted to implement Scrum). However, as I thought about this, I realized these were few and far between.

I summed up the situation:

  • A cornerstone of Scrum is trust on the team
  • Most companies do not have a culture of trust
  • It will take a long time to get this trust
  • This implies it will take a long time to be able to implement Scrum

No wonder people were depressed!

When I am in situations like this, I like to take the attitude on one of our T-shirts – “I feel so much better since I gave up hope!” In this case, the hope was to find a group that had trust. The back of our t-shirt says “Now that I have no hope I’d better take action.”

So I asked myself – what can I do to move Scrum forward even without trust? I guess my Lean background of focusing on systems gave me the impetus. OK, so let’s say we have a team that doesn’t trust each other or management but we do the following:

  1. Get them colocated.
  2. Get them working on one project.
  3. Build software in stages.
  4. Hold Daily Stand-up meetings.
  5. Have someone available (the Scrum Master) that will help them remove impediments in their way.
  6. Have either the customers more available to them or have someone fill the role of the Product Owner so the team can get guidance on what is needed.

It would be better if they trusted each other, but if they just changed these actions would we get improvement? I was sure they would (and we’ve done this on dozens of teams since so now I know they would). Would their better results perhaps build trust? I hoped so (ok, so I guess I didn’t totally give up hope). And experience has now shown that it did.

Looking back I now see that I was manifesting Mann’s suggestion. I worked on the teams’ actions and shifted their culture. I didn’t focus on culture because, although incredibly important, it wasn’t something I could deal with directly.

This also points out another long ranting concept I’ve had (a “long ranting concept” is a concept I’ve been ranting about for a long time). The concept? That understanding principles will help you follow practices. That is, in the past I did something I intuitively thought would be a good thing (focusing on action, not culture). But I had never brought this concept to my consciousness. I wonder how many times in the past I missed the opportunity for action that might have assisted transitioning a team or company because I was too focused on the culture?