Did you ever hear anyone shout “culture failure!”?

Today, we tend to apply process thinking as a default ”solution lens” to all problems, failures and challenges we encounter, even those which cannot be solved by process. When we hear about a failure, we point at a it and shout ”process failure!” without even thinking twice. Or we shout ”technology failure!” because we knew technology was somewhat involved.

But what if it’s actually culture failure? How often do you hear anyone shout that out (“Guys, it’s culture failure!”) ? If someone point to culture failure, would you expect that person to try to do anything about it?

A culture failure is much more alarming and also much more unconfortable than a simple process or technology failure. It signals that something is fundamentally wrong, something which is very complex and hard to change. It means that you not only have to change your own attitudes and behaviors, but also those of your collegues, including management. You might need to change the entire incentive model, which in the end determines the bonus of your CEO. What is worse, you most likely also need to change the attitudes and behaviors of your CEO (“Impossible!”).

So what would most people do when they start thinking in the direction of culture failure?

Answer: They stop thinking in that direction.

The reason is simple; we prefer to see simple causes and to apply simple solutions, because then we can manage to do something about them. If not all by ourselves so with a reasonable limited team effort. If it gets too big, we try to forget about it.

It is only natural that we rather revisit our processes and technologies than try to seek the root cause in our collective attitudes and behaviors. Maybe we can go as far as shuffling people around in an organizational change, inventing some new roles and titles, firing some butts and recruiting some new ones.

A flat tire on a bike can be fixed by process. It is a known, repeatable and thus predictable failure. This means that we can define a standard solution for it, and that we can define a process for how to apply the solution. We can educate bicycle repairmen, or even do it ourselves. The knowledge about the solution and the process can be easily transfered to almost anyone and anywhere where they ride bikes and are likely to experience flat tires.

But what about a failure that occurs in a much much more complex system, one that is constantly changing and where the components are humans, where the failure can happen anywhere and anytime, and where unpredictable human behavior is causing the failures? Would you send the bicycle repairman to find the cause of the failure and fix it? Or a process engineer?

Thanks to Tom Graves (@tetradian) for inspiration to this post via our conversation on Twitter.

By Oscar Berg at 7:28 AM
Labels: Change
Richard Veryard said…
You assert that “a culture failure … signals that something is fundamentally wrong”.

Culture failures are interesting because they are ambiguous. I think one of the characteristics of “culture failure” is that people aren’t even agreed if there is a failure at all, and if so what the nature of the failure is.

Do you have an example of something you would classify as a culture failure?

January 5, 2010 10:36 AM
Oscar Berg said…
Thanks for your comment Richard.

I agree with you that it’s hard to identify a culture failure. One example the failure of sharing and collaboration with people outside your own team or business unit, which can be prevented by the existence of a “need to know” culture and which cannot be changed just by changing processes, systems or organization.

A business might have put creation of synergies, innovation, improved reuse and better decision making on their list of business priorities, and try to solve it with new processes and technologies. The problem is that a “need to know” culture dominates the business and leads to subomtimization, lost innovations, redundant work, bad decisions etc. People don’t share or tell others about what they are doing or have found unless they are explicitly asked to. This might be attributed to internal competition and lack of incentives for sharing and helping people outside ones own business unit, but the attitudes and behaviors these have lead to have unfortunately been rooted in the business culture.

January 5, 2010 11:12 AM
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