When I’m writing these words I’m on my way home from Lean Agile Scotland. While summarizing the event Chris McDermott mentioned a few themes, two of them being organizational culture and experimentation.
Experimentation is definitely my thing. I am into organizational culture too. I should be happy when Chris righteously pointed both as the themes of the event. At the same at that very moment time alarm lights went off in my head.
We refer a lot to safe to fail experiments. We talk about antifragile or resilient environments. And then we quickly turn into organizational culture.
The term culture hacking pops up frequently.
And I’m scared.
The reason is that in most cases there is no safe to fail experiment when we talk about an organizational culture. The culture is an outcome of everyone’s behaviors. It is ultimately about people. In other words an experiment on the culture, or a culture hack if you will, means changing people behaviors.
If you mess it up, more often than not, there’s no coming back. We may introduce a new factor that would influence how people behave. However, removing that factor does not bring the old behaviors back. Not only that though. Often there’s no simple way to introduce another factor that would bring back the old status quo.
There’s a study which showed that introducing a fine for popping up late at a daycare to pick up a child resulted in in more parents being late, as they felt excused for their behavior. This was quite an unexpected outcome of the experiment. However, even more interesting part is that removing the fine did not affect parents’ behaviors at all – they kept popping up late more frequently than before the experiment.
It’s natural. Our behaviors are outcome of the constraints of the environment and our experience, knowledge and wisdom.
We will affect behaviors by changing the constraints. The change is not mechanistic though. We can’t exactly predict what’s going to happen. At the same time the change affects our experience, knowledge and wisdom and thus irreversibly changes the bottom line.
I can give you a simple example. When we decided to go transparent with salaries at Lunar Logic it was a huge cultural experiment. What I knew from the very beginning though was there was no coming back. Ultimately, we can make salaries “non-transparent” again. Would that change what people learned about everyone’s salary? No. Would that change that they do look at each other through the perspective of that knowledge?
It might have affect the way they look at the company in a negative way, as suddenly some of the authority that they’d had was taken away. In other words, even from that perspective they’d have been better if such an experiment hadn’t been run at all than if it was tried and rolled back.
I’m all for experimentation. I definitely do prefer safe to fail experiments. I am however aware that there are whole areas where such experiments are impossible most of the time, if not all of the time.
The culture is one such area. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be experimenting with the culture. It’s just that we should be aware of the stakes. If you’re just flailing around with your culture hacks there will be casualties. Having experimentation mindset is a lousy excuse.
I guess the part of my pet peeve with understanding the tools and the methods is exactly this. When we introduce a new constraint, and a method or a tool is a constraint, we invariably change the environment and thus influence the culture. Sometimes irreversibly.
It get even trickier when the direct goal of the experiment is to change the culture. Without understanding what we’re doing it’s highly likely that such a culture hack will backfire. Each time I run an experiment on a culture I like to think that the change will be irreversible and then I ask myself once again: do I really want to run it?
If not I simply don’t mess with the culture.