Why improving culture can bring dramatic results

Why improving culture can bring dramatic results


It is not surprising that at many organisations, mainly in difficult cultures, management teams increase their focus on individuals and teams when things do not work out. They believe that to resolve any issues or to improve a situation, they need to fix people. While in some cases people related issues might need to be resolved; in many more cases leaders should focus on  improving the systemic issues and the culture of the workplace.

 As a delivery professional, and specifically as an Agile delivery professional, you will face situations where things will not be working out for your teams. There can be many reasons behind those issues, but pay special attention to systemic and culture issues. This post helps you decide whether to be a part of the problem or be the wise person who offers solutions.

 Have a look at this famous quote by Alexander Den Heijer*

 “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” 

 What this quote symbolizes is what happens at many workplaces. We see that when a problem appears, the management teams get so involved in the lower level details that it becomes harder for them to see the forest for the trees. In other words, they can’t see the bigger picture. This results in either applying short term fixes or fixing the wrong problems.

 It is true to an extent that many managers find it rather simple to find faults in the teams. Local fixes are easier to apply and they can be shown as quick wins. These quick, local fixes are the low hanging fruits and they are quite attractive because they make managers look good in front of their peers and superiors. It’s amusing how culture of a workplace can affects people’s behaviours.

 It is hard to identify and detect systemic issues. When managers have a narrow view of things, when they are not trained in looking at the bigger picture and think critically, they tend to ignore the signs that the system might be showing them. The issues might be with systems, suppliers, other managers, expectations, equipment, skills or any other things.

Challenges for organisations and delivery folks:

 The challenges that organisations and teams face in solving long term problems are:

 – attractiveness of applying the quick fixes
– incompetence of managers in identifying the right problems, and
– ambiguous nature of systemic issues

Below is an example from my personal experience how management ignores systemic issues and focuses on low level details.

I was once invited to a financial institute to do an assessment of how the Scrum Masters were performing there. The person who commissioned the work told me that the company wanted their teams to improve. Through this assessment, they wanted to see which areas needed further support or training. But, being a sceptic, I was curious to know whether the management was genuinely interested in helping their teams improve or this assessment was a ‘performance review’ in disguise. I didn’t know whether this activity was also going to be used as a ‘right sizing’ tool.

 My assessment process included interviewing various people to get a holistic sense of the working environment. After meeting the scrum masters, program managers, product owners, peers and colleagues, I noted that there were many improvement areas. One of them was additional training for scrum masters, but there were many others which were more work-environment related. What was interesting was that these folks had no control over the issues affecting their work. Most of the problems that were slowing the teams down and impacting product delivery had nothing to do with these scrum masters. Almost everything was an organisational issue. 

When I sent my report to the person who commissioned the work, she completely ignored the recommendations related to the organisational issues and decided to action only what was written about the team members. 

As expected, nothing actually changed for them.


What should leaders focus on?

 Local sub-optimisations can only produce sub-standard outcomes. If you are an executive or a delivery manager, don’t spend much energy on improving efficiency and productivity of individuals (or individual teams). Those things have limitations. Although you do need to solve the immediate issues. Once that is done, Instead, try to understand the dynamics of your systems. If you face a challenge, pay attention to how your overall system is behaving. 

 Can you pick different sentiments in people’s attitude? Do you see that vocal team members have stopped talking? Are teams reluctant in experimenting? Have the number of sick days increased? Have people stopped challenging you or offering suggestions? Has productivity dropped? Is the work produced by teams appear to be of lower quality than it was before? Do you notice a lack of collaboration and cohesion among all levels of people and teams? Have people started keeping record of interactions ‘just in case’ if they had to ‘prove’ something? Has the learning stopped?  

 The list of questions can be very long. All of these questions are the symptoms of larger problems.

 It takes time and effort to understand the patterns and behaviour of a system, but the results, impacts and effects are often better & long lasting.

 How to identify and action systemic issues:

 As a delivery professional, it is imperative for you to learn and experience practices and techniques for systemic issues. Initiatives, projects, assignments and products can vary in size and complexity. You will have to choose the right tool for the right context. I have provided some suggestions below. 

 Systems mapping: Most initiatives have dependencies and interdependencies on a variety of things. These include people, processes, vendor suppliers, equipment, government compliance and regulations, technology, market forces etc. 

 It is a good idea to create a systems map to understand the breadth of your solution. Specifically for large initiatives with multiple touch points, creating a systems map is vital. Once a basic map is ready, other team members can add details that you might have forgotten. Systems maps help leaders see the forest and not just the trees.

 Group mind mapping: You can start your project with a mind mapping exercise with the core members of your team. A mind map not only helps you develop your ideas, it also helps you reveal the potential outcomes or problems. 

 Brainstorming, decision making and problem solving techniques: I have used techniques such as Lotus Blossom for decision making and problem solving. Lotus blossom is a structured way to explore areas which are high stake and require deeper thinking.

 Collaboration techniques: To improve the culture of your organisations, you should apply team collaboration techniques that improve coordination and psychological safety. Once your team members feel safe to speak out and share ideas, you will notice the substantial benefits for your projects.

 You might already know many of the suggestions I have provided in this article. My job was only to give you a nudge and hope I have done that through this article. What has been your experience at applying practices that have helped you improve the culture of your team or the workplace? Please share your ideas in the comments below. 

* Alexander Den Heijer is a well known motivational speaker and the author of Nothing you don’t already know: Remarkable reminders about meaning, purpose, and self-realization