Understanding an Organizational Culture: AKA Joining an All Star team


By Edan Puritt

Most sports have some form of All Star game where the best of the best get to compete with and against each other. Over the years, however, fans have become less and less interested in these events. No one denies that the players aren’t the very best at their respective positions and sports, and yet the games are, frankly, boring. Essentially, although each player knows dr-seussexactly what to do, they don’t know how to do it together. HOW you do it, is often as relevant to the outcome as WHAT you do.

Does culture matter?

I am writing this piece from Geneva, while doing a study for a UN agency. At the same time, though during this week, I have been asked to provide advice to two separate Canadian federal government departments in Ottawa and a private sector organization in Alberta. How we work differs, and culture matters. The service I provide to each client is essentially the same, advice on how to maximize the value of information assets, yet how I suggest they follow that advice is dramatically different.

The HOW offers ongoing excitement

yes-no-maybeI regularly take the time to assess or evaluate where I am in life. That said, I have come to realize the how, much more than the what, continues to intrigue me.globe The technologies really haven’t changed that much, and the rules are also quite clear. I need to stay on top of the latest software versions and tools, although the changes are rarely as exciting as the respective vendors make them out to be. In the end, it’s HOW I do my work that is exciting. It changes with every client, across the same city, across the same country, or between countries. And the difference are not just perceived, they are real. Every organization has a different way of saying “no”. Actually, it’s really that every organization has a different process, both formal and informal, to approve change. But since we rarely get to interact with an entire organization as a single unit, we don’t usually see the whole elephant. Like the blind men describing the creature, we are usually just dealing with a single part, a foot perhaps. That part is going to behave in some kind of combination of the obstacle/opportunity I am presenting, plus the motion, and habit, of the entire beast. And yes, if you are unaware of the trajectory of the animal, expect to just be stepped on.crestExamining all the various cultural expectations and experiences I have countered in my decades of IM and IT work would take up more time than most readers have. Besides, I should save some of the stories for future posts. For now, consider these three examples, which all surfaced in my to-do this week.

International organization, Swiss setting

My client in Geneva has very specific, well understood, rules for accepting change. There are multiple departments, each with their own hierarchy, that expect to participate in the approval process of change. The more significant the change, often measured financially, the further up the hierarchy of each department the change request must travel. What this really represents is a check and balance system. The potential benefits and potential risks are measured by the appropriate stakeholders, and then a common rational decision is arrived at. Any attempt to circumvent the halldecision making process is met with hostility. rail-yardNext, overlay the informal decision making process. That’s right. Now it’s time to consider individuals who are, to a greater or lesser degree, champions of their own specific department’s objectives. So how does one navigate this? Consensus is rarely achieved, because more often than not, what is of benefit to one group is not of benefit to all groups. These cases require multiple descriptions of the same solution. Essentially, a description of the solution, as seen through the specific lens or facet that is each stakeholder. Describe what is in it for them, as an individual, not what is best for the organization. Sounds surprisingly straightforward, and yet it is a principle that is often overlooked.

Federal organization, Canadian government

ottawaAnd then there is Ottawa. OK, no smiling please or rolling of eyes. One of the few things we all have in common is the national sport of bashing anything that is government. The reality is that there are a multitude of concurrent and consecutive projects underway at any given time in any particular department. Remember, projects are basically an attempt to alter the status quo. In many ways, that’s exactly the problem. Change, for many, is a dangerous and murky condition. In Ottawa, the environment limits the arbitrary dolling out of punishment or rewards (not as difficult as working with volunteers, but close), and hierarchy is largely meaningless. Resistance may be futile in the Delta Quadrant, but in the government, passive aggression is all it takes to effectively resist. Absorptive capacity. Although each of the departments I have worked with has a slightly different flavour of resistance, the base cause comes back to exactly this notion. People have an absorptive capacity riverand it has often been reached. All these projects, one after another, constantly trying to change, or actually changing, the work environment are a real pain in the asset management. How do we overcome the resistance of people who feel over worked, under-appreciated, and whose absorptive capacity has been met? Frame the solution in a way that addresses the real problem of the people who are primed to resist. How will the proposed solution reduce the level of effort necessary to achieve the same result? Focus on the benefits. Don’t hide the challenges. Offer legitimate support. Establish realistic timelines. Address the very real concern of effort involved. Answer the question about effort required vis-à-vis results expected honestly and those very same passive aggressive resistors will become aggressive champions.

Private sector industry, Western Canada

boxDangerous as generalizations are, there is a culture common to most private sector organizations. And yes, as with most large public sector groups, that culture comes in many flavours. Fundamentally, an environment of limited resources, often results in the perception of a zero sum gain for the allocation of those resources. In the private sector, rather than the kind of passive aggressiondog one sees in the public sector, we are all too often witness to projects that don’t even attempt to gather support or consensus from other corporate units. The very real divisions between us and them do not lend themselves to effective teamwork across corporate groups. This usually results in a process where some parts of the corporation will sit back and watch their “competitors” flounder, while the informal decision making hierarchy actively attempts to sabotage these projects. Astonishingly, most of the projects that will result in the most profound change are the very ones that require the active cooperation, (read: mandate and expertise) of other parts of the corporation. Yes, you read that correctly – they need the rest of the organization. The reality for contractors, though, is that we are most likely going to be brought in by only one part of the corporation. Personally, I find these projects the most rewarding. The success of OUR project will be reliant on the cooperation, goodwill, or possibly even acquiescence ofcommit-no-nuisance my client’s competitor departments. With this insight, what is my walkaway? Speak with a corporate voice, not the departmental one. Investigate, talk to others, research. What is best for all, what is the common goal? In an environment where weakness sounds a death knell, do no evil.

Should you join the All Star Team?

In a story about the distinctions between culture, and the relevance of culture, it might seem strange to generalize, but, at least it’s a place to start. Each organization works with its own written and unwritten rules. Each organization has its own hierarchy of paper-based and other leaders. Each organization has its own business mandate and its own arrangement dictating departmental interaction. Ask questions. Talk. Listen. Probe. Go for coffee. If you are going to be asked to play on the All Star team, you won’t need to improve your skills, but you may want to focus on how you and your new team mates are going to work most effectively together.

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