Culture as a small-scale solution, not a large-scale problem.

The below is adapted from a short talk I gave at the Innovation Network Sheffield meet-up on the 11th March.

It’s generally accepted that the ‘culture’ of an organisation plays a crucial role in that organisation’s ability to innovate.

Company ‘culture’ though, is an incredibly difficult thing to accurately define and analyse, as it is so closely intertwined with the way the organisation is structured, its institutional rules and regulations, the way it regards risk, the way it talks about itself, the way it addresses its employees, the personalities of its leaders, the amount of autonomy -both real and perceived — that individuals and teams have, and so many other factors.

There are plenty of famous examples of organisations with very innovation-positive rules:

These, though, are all companies that were created pretty much from the outset to foster an innovative culture, and the well-known institutional rules are supported by a whole set of norms and practices. It’s another matter entirely to change an existing culture. In fact for organisations of a certain size it may be impossible — as management guru Peter Drucker once said: “Company cultures are like country cultures. Don’t try to change them — work with what you’ve got.”

So, with this in mind I’d like to talk about ‘culture’ as a tool in itself, not just as something that the whole organisation is bound up in. Rather than confronting poor organisational culture as a large-scale problem, we can also think about it as a small-scale solution that can bring about change from the bottom up.

In this conception, culture is *how* we do work together, as distinct from the work that we do, or the outputs.

For instance, at web-development agency Technophobia they have an IT security policy that dictates that all staff must lock their computers when they leave their desks, even if it’s just for a few minutes. However, instead of giving the job of policing this policy to a security officer or to line managers, the company makes *everyone* co-responsible for policing. And it does so by adding a simple additional rule:

“If anyone (and it really does mean anyone), happens to see an unlocked computer they have permission to open the currently logged in user’s email and send an email to everyone in the company declaring that they have left their computer unlocked and most now pay penance by buying everyone donuts.”

And that’s it. The ‘donutting’ game has been running for well over a decade and is a highly effective way of enforcing an important security policy. I have seen people stand up from a table in the pub after work and automatically tap the Alt-Ctrl-L key combination onto the tabletop, the muscle-memory is so strong. But in addition to the effectiveness of the policy, the fact it’s a game adds immensely to the culture of the company. Everyone has a great donutting story. And there are some legendary donutters. It serves as an initiation rite for new starters — it’s nearly impossible to avoid being caught during the first few weeks. People always express their personality when writing donut emails — it’s rarely just requesting donuts, and some of them are truly hilarious. And of course the pennance involves food, which brings people together too. The cultural aspects of the game are not easy to measure but they are hugely significant.

At logistical engineering firm Loadhog, they have an emergency “I’m stuck” bell. If any of their engineers and designers are at their wits’ end and can’t figure out a way to solve a problem on their own, they can go to the ‘Juicer’ — Loadhog’s stand-up conference area — and hit the emergency button that sounds the bell. Anyone who hears it (and it reverberates through the whole factory) can stop what they are doing (within reason), and join the engineer in the juicer to lend their expertise and help work through the problem together. Again, on the one hand this is an effective way of doing work. It’s more efficient than to tie up an engineer on a problem for a long time when it could be solved quicker collectively. But the the bell adds a whole extra dimension — no one is left in any doubt as to the importance the organisation places on problem solving. And it creates an environment in which the unexpected can happen any time. I’m sure every engineer who works there remembers the first time they hit the emergency button and has a great story about it…

And so these policies are made more effective by being ‘cultural practices’ than just ‘rules’ or ‘processes’. This is not simply “socially transmitted behaviour patterns, beliefs and thoughts”. Nor is it about people sharing common values (although that is important too). It is more like what we think of as Culture with a capital C — artefacts, performances, games, images, etc. that increase our knowledge, understanding and ability to cooperate with each other.

In large organisations, this kind of thing can’t easily be imposed from above, but there should be space for it to spring creatively from below. In my experience teams and departments in most organisations have more autonomy to create culture than they believe. Equally, though, this is absolutely not about how management should measure team culture. Management should be measuring outputs. Teams should be exploring how much autonomy they have to create culture in the delivery of the outputs. However, management should also understand how to reward increased efficiency — for instance with the opportunity to use the freed time to further innovate, and develop new value, instead of simply with ‘rationalising’ jobs.

It’s about being given the space to determine how best to do something collectively. And sometimes it’s about adopting some practices in one (harmless) area which can spread to more important ones once people have got the hang of it.

Another aspect is that it needs to be consensual and sanctioned by all team members — which can be difficult if the team is very diverse (as teams should be). Of course any cultural practice that excludes people is unacceptable. But generally, as in the examples above, there is little penalty for non-participation. Induction is also important in this respect — it needs to be sensitive to the history of the practice and its effectiveness as well as just its performance.

And finally, there needs to be a way for the culture to adapt and change over time. And to be discontinued if it is no longer relevant to the people involved or is no longer effective.

I’d love to hear about other cultural practices that people have created in their organisations — please comment if you have a good story to tell!

(Donuts image by Mathias Sjoberg)


Originally published at suspendedjudgement.net.