Culture is Complex, Experiment for Success

In the post “Quality Culture is Fundamental to Actually Providing Quality” I discussed some of the elements of organizational culture and how it fits into conceptualizing a quality culture. I think it is important to discuss some of the complexities and how these complexities need to be solved through iterative experiments.

John Traphagan in his 2017 HBR article “We’re Thinking about Organizational Culture All Wrong” discusses how that the study of organizational culture commonly conveys the idea of culture as a unifying force that brings people together to work productively toward the attainment of organizational goals. The approach implies that or­ganizational culture is understood as a collective project able to create unity and cohesion in some simple steps. But reality presents a quite different picture because today culture is not only about cohesiveness and unity. It is also about disagreement, discrepancy and disparities constantly testing the capacity of people to work together and benefit advancing common and ethical organizational goals in spite of in­dividual differences.

Traphagan ends his article with a powerful statement that should be kept front and center in any culture initiative: “The idea that unity can be generated among employees by fixing or creating an organizational culture relies on a naïve assumption that culture unambiguously brings people together. But the reality of culture is that it represents a tremendously complex variable that can both bring people together and pull them apart — or do both at the same time.”

Because of the reality Traphagan discusses, we need to realize that work on culture is really about experiments. I’ll point you to another article in HBR by Stefan Thomke “Building a Culture of Experimentations“. This article empha­sizes that the main obstacles obstructing change are lodged in the culture, in deep shared behaviors, beliefs and values that shape a culture over time and perpetuate in place without periodic or effectiveness assessment and in spite of obsolescent outcomes. Thomke writes that a successful culture of experimentation is built on five critical elements: cultivation of people’s curiosity, insisting that data trump educated opinions (avoiding guessing), democratize experimentation across organizational divisions, promoting ethical sensitivity in all functions and embracing a humane and agile leadership model.

Culture is a complex problem and the only true path for addressing is small scale experimentation iteratively applied with the end-goal of transformation.

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