You Can't Cram Culture

I was grabbing lunch at Subway yesterday, when an old school friend rushed in. We had a brief bread-based chat, and I asked him the fairly bland question - “How’s work?” “Busy! We’re flat out!” came the reply.

We chatted further, then he left out the door - back to the office. There’s nothing unusual in this encounter - except as I reflected on this, I realised that every time I’ve bumped into this friend over the past four years - “Busy” has been his answer. 

No surprises there - research is showing that although the average worker is working less time per week than their grandparents did, they are busier with a wider range of tasks and projects demanding their attention. The result? A sense of inadequate time, and distracted focus on the work at hand.

Given this workplace reality - it’s no surprise that quick-fixes to productivity and processes are so appealing. Many of them are effective - Agile enables greater autonomy and cross-functional teams to speed up production processes. Scrum utilises easy-to-understand sprints and quick meetings to enhance productivity. They’re simple-yet-powerful processes, that can be adapted by almost any organisation.

When we can make a fast change, with relative ease - that’s cramming. Think of your preparation for tests at school - able to spend a dedicated chunk of hours the night before, filling your mind with information - that you can use the next day.

We can cram reading with Blinkist and CliffsNotes. We cram exercise with High Intensity Interval Training. We cram meals with fast-food. 

But there are some things that simply cannot be crammed.

You Can't Cram Milking

Married at First Sight - a diabolically bad reality TV show that matches strangers to be married - reveals that you can’t effectively cram a relationship. You can’t create a process that crams a milking season into one day - or shortens a cow’s gestational period from 40 weeks to 20. 

And - despite our best hopes - you can’t cram an organisation’s culture.

Researchers have concluded that changing the culture of a large organisation takes a minimum of three years. A smaller start-up culture, once established, takes between one-to-three years to change. 

Why is this? Culture is the repeated actions, language and processes of an organisation. It has to be repeated and engrained. Without the ongoing repetition of the desired goals, steps and words - any cultural change is a mere flash-in-the-pan intervention.

Unfortunately, this is what I often see when it comes to attempts for organisations to develop a culture of innovation. 

They begin with a high-scale event, pushing problems to the employees and encouraging their ideas. And then - within weeks - it is back to business-as-usual. Idea boxes remain empty. Submitted ideas stall, and die. No new products are developed. The culture remains the same.

How To Change A Culture

The great news about culture change - is that it doesn’t require a big budget. What it does require is a vision of what the new culture should look like, and the simple steps of leading others to participate in this future.

And then it requires sticking at it - rewarding the changes you want to see, and calling out the behaviour you want gone.

To develop a vision of innovation for your culture - consider asking yourself and your team - “What would we do if we were wanting to compete against ourselves?”

What kind of actions would you take? What opportunities would you explore? What would be your behaviour with co-workers and with customers? How would you generate ideas? How would you test and fund them?

These seem remarkably simple - but their power is in them being considered and answered - not just in knowing them. 

To explore what behaviours you want to see to develop your innovation culture - consider looking at Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile’s categories of innovation behaviours:

1. Challenge - how well people are assigned to right tasks;

2. Freedom - freedom to innovate with the means of the process - towards an agreed end;

3. Allocating resource towards creativity and innovation;

4. Designing workgroups for cross-functional collaboration;

5. Management encouraging and expecting innovation;

6. Senior leaders removing blocks of innovation;

7. Senior leaders developing systems of innovation;

8. Measuring the creativity, innovation and productivity of an organisation.

Spend some time thinking about what these categories could look like in your organisation. If you want to go further and begin measuring and designing your innovation culture of the future - let's chat.