Why You Need A ‘Systems Perspective’ On Culture

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Making sure all parts of an organization work together is key to running well, says Melissa Daimler, author of ReCulturing.

In many organizations, gaps can exist that derail culture and drive away talent. To close those gaps, avoid focusing on any aspect of the business in isolation, says Melissa Daimler.

Daimler is chief learning officer of Udemy in San Francisco and author of the new book, ReCulturing: Design Your Company Culture To Connect With Strategy And Purpose For Lasting Success. She spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about why values need to be connected to action, why “change transformations” fall short and how she would amend Peter Drucker’s famous line, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

How does thinking about work and culture as a system change the way leaders approach it? 

Organizations are systems. A system is not a number of different parts that need to be addressed. Rather, systems thinking is always figuring out how those parts can connect and work together more effectively. When we isolate only one part of the system, it certainly simplifies the problem. It can be satisfying to get to a quick solution—even if it later turns out to be wrong. Yet, as we experience daily, organizational issues are complex. Oftentimes, the presenting issue is only a symptom of something else.

I learned very early in my career that I could have a more impactful, long-term solution with different situations when I connected the organizational parts to each other. I often found myself in conversations talking about strategy—what we’re working on—and wondering why we weren’t also discussing culture and how we were working with each other. When we talked about the structure of an organization, I would refer to the strategy. When we discussed what skills and capabilities were needed for a role, I made sure that we also discussed how the organizational behaviors would show up in that role. 

Whenever I worked with leaders, often the initial request was to do a training program or help them come up with a communication plan about something that wasn’t working across their organization. Instead, I asked a lot of questions, and we often realized that while training may be part of the solution, it was only a small part of it. 

The best organizations have a systems perspective of culture—they know that all the parts connect and work with each other. When gaps appear, they work to close them or reconnect them to a foundational part of the system. There could be strong purpose that is not represented in the strategy. The strategy could be strong with no real connection to how that strategy will be executed effectively. When those connections are strong, both the business and employees succeed.  

What are the gaps that derail culture and drive away talent, and what can employers do to alleviate them?

The first gap can be between culture and strategy. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This is a famous quote by the much-admired business and leadership consultant Peter Drucker. He wrote about the importance of building culture and argued that it is even more important than strategy. Of course, culture is important, but only in its relation to the rest of the organizational system. I have always thought that instead of “eating strategy,” culture and strategy need to eat breakfast together—maybe even lunch and an occasional dinner.  

We cannot set expectations of how to work (culture) without defining what we are working on (strategy). How this shows up is, for example, when we’re evaluating an employee who may have had good quarterly results, but how they worked with others was disrespectful. Or maybe different roles and skills are needed now that the company has doubled in size over the past year, but none of the learning experiences focus on building skills related to what the company needs to evolve.  

Another gap shows up when a company has values, but they are not connected to any specific behaviors. Leaders and managers talk about the values with sleek company branded slides, but they don’t share stories of team successes based on those values or how someone exemplified those behaviors and was promoted. 

Another reason for creating behaviors beyond the values is because the same value could have a very different meaning at another company. Collaboration at one company could mean asking more questions. In another company, it could mean constructively debating each other. When the behaviors are defined, it provides clarity for employees on what is expected of them and what they can expect from others. Without this clarity, politics emerge, silos form and more time is spent navigating that noise than getting the work done.  

The gap between behaviors and processes is when there is no representation of the behaviors in how companies hire, onboard, manage their talent and offboard employees. A behavior needs to be observable. If there was a video camera on the employee, we would be able to tell that they were exemplifying this behavior.

Can you give me an example?

Let’s say it is, “We simplify complexity.” I might see an employee asking a candidate during the hiring process how they simplified projects in the past. I might see that same employee giving feedback to a colleague about paring down a presentation. Behaviors need to be embedded into the processes so that the employee experience is consistent and intentionally inclusive.  

Practices are the informal, day-to-day and sometimes more functionally oriented actions or rituals that employees and teams implement. Gaps happen when the behaviors aren’t referenced through the five core practices most companies do on a consistent basis: communicating, meeting, learning, recognizing and connecting. Behaviors don’t have to be embedded into each one of these practices; however, it is important to keep some connection back to behaviors when designing each practice.

As an example, “We say what needs to be said” is a behavior at one company. They encourage employees to actively check in with each other during meetings, especially with the quieter ones, to ensure that everyone has shared what they need to say. Or if “We empower decisions at the lowest level” is a behavior, then reviewing all projects before they launch to identify who will make those decisions could be a great practice to come back to each time.  

Culture can be operationalized and reinforced through the behaviors, processes and practices that are put in place. It is strengthened or weakened every time an interview question is asked or an employee is onboarded or promoted. ReCulturing is not an HR initiative that is done once. It is not a multiyear change transformation. Rather, it is a designed set of ongoing actions that employees are expected to do daily.

Thinking of it in terms of a transformation is old thinking and can be overwhelming for any leader trying to manage all the other complexities demanded. No culture is static. Just like we continue to review our strategy and the associated objectives and priorities, we need to continue to iterate and evolve our culture and the associated behaviors, processes and practices. 

I’ve been a part of a lot of “change transformations.” They usually have a beginning and an end. They have a lot of energy in the beginning, only to fade at the time of launch, with the project team burned out on all the details it took to get to the launch point. With ReCulturing, there may be a beginning, but there is no end. This is an ongoing co-creation between executives and employees that everyone, at every level, every day is responsible to do.

In addition, even if values remain the same, the associated behaviors, processes and practices need to be reviewed so that they, too, scale with the company.

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