Culture can be a Vexing Word

This post has been inspired by a conversation about culture with Tobbe and Steve.

I was pondering why I have trouble with the word ‘Culture’ and it’s related to the ways we misinterpret words and misuse them to influence people.
So I tweeted a thread earlier this week which captures some of the problems

Culture can be a vexing word

In this context ‘vexing’ means causing annoyance, frustration or worry (from the google dictionary)

The word ‘Culture’ is annoying when used as a convenient excuse For example ‘the culture is not right here’ or ‘we need to change the culture’

The word ‘Culture’ is frustrating when we try to define it
‘We need to change the culture’
…..’What do you mean by culture?’
‘You know – how we do things around here’
…..’What things?’
‘How we communicate, interact, collaborate…’
……..

…..’What is collaboration?’

And the word ‘Culture’ is worrying because it can lead to rabbit holes, wild goose chases and cans of worms It’s far too easy to focus on activities attempting to change the culture directly (and these are very hard to measure – see previous tweet about definition)

It’s very easy to vent about an issue and a lot trickier to propose ways to address these issues.
The simplest first idea is to stop spending large amounts of time trying to define culture – sometimes it’s like…discussion about culture eats everything else…(with apologies to Drucker – although according to Quote Investigator the quote might not be directly from Drucker).

The next simple idea is to catch ourselves when we think ‘the culture needs to change….’ or similar and apply something like the 5 Whys to it.

  • Why do we think the culture needs to change? – Because people keep doing the same things and won’t try new ideas
  • Which same thing are we concerned about and why? – The funding process
  • Why is the funding process a problem? – Because we have to fill out timesheets
  • Why do we fill out timesheets? – So that we can be paid
  • Are there any other reasons why we need to fill in timesheets? – I don’t know
  • Who might know? – HR, Finance, Managers
  • Why is filling in timesheets a problem? – Because the codes are confusing and it takes around 15 mins a week when I could be doing more valuable work

We can see that the list of whys and who might know is getting very long and there are a lot of interesting and branching threads to explore. The timesheet one can be fairly simple to follow and it often ultimately relates to how an organisation does its accounts as well as allowing us to get paid properly. Accounting standards are fairly universal and are not going to change very quickly – so we are much better off educating ourselves about the need of the organisation to meet taxation, corporate governance, audit etc. requirements and finding more effective ways to achieve these as well as communicating this need with our colleagues.

We might find that a very measurable thing (that an organisation is a going concern in accounting speak) can have a dramatic impact on culture when we focus on flowing our work around that need.

Agile is like using a Chef’s Knife…

Agile has been described as a change in mindset, which is a tricky concept to explain and even trickier to do.

What if agile is additive instead?

Here’s an analogy.

If we only had a butter knife in our kitchen, there would be some tasks that we can do very well, such as spread butter and jam on bread. Imagine if we wanted to chop up tomatoes. The tomatoes would be in very big chunks and it would be very messy with a lot of waste.

Then we discover the chef’s knife and learn how to use it. Now we can chop tomatoes (and other things) with a lot more precision and much less waste.

We do not get rid of our butter knife though (I imagine that trying to spread butter on soft bread with a chef’s knife will result in a very torn and unpalatable result).

Now we can do many more tasks in the kitchen, using the tool that is best suited for the job and the main changes we have made is to purchase the chef’s knife and learn how to use it properly – which is a case of ‘both/and’ not ‘instead of’.

The 12th State of Agile report from VersionOne has just been released, below is some data from the 11th (2017) report about the challenges experienced adopting and scaling agile.

Source: VersionOne 11th annual State of Agile report

www.StateOfAgile.com

Back to our chef’s knife analogy – it would be unwise of us to purchase one and start waving it around – they can be quite hefty and very sharp things. If used inappropriately, they can be very dangerous. We need to start slowly and learn how to use it until our muscle memory kicks in and then we can go a bit faster.

It’s the same with learning new ways of working – we need to know when it’s appropriate to use them and be careful that we don’t cause unintended damage as we build our ‘muscle memory’ and get used to the new practices, principles and techniques.

It’s interesting in the state of agile report data above that 2 factors appear that we can address in fairly obvious ways with training, coaching and deliberate practice.

  • Lack of experience with agile methods (47%)
  • Insufficient training (34%)

The remaining 10 factors have a lot more complexity and uncertainty to them and will be much trickier to influence.

If we stop thinking of agile as a change in mindset and see it instead as learning a new set of tools, perhaps that would help us to focus on the 2 factors above and reduce the impact of the other 10 at the same time.

It’s nice to get new things – and even nicer when we can still find uses for those items we have grown to love (like a favourite butter knife).