Improve your professional culture by addressing your organization’s human system
We often think of an organization’s professional culture as both static and amorphous: “This is just how things are done around here. It hasn’t changed since I arrived, and it probably won’t anytime soon.” While cultures are sometimes shaped deliberately (think of the influence of strong senior leaders), they often emerge organically and seemingly on their own. As such, it can be a challenge to change a culture, as if trying to manipulate fog.
It is more energizing and enlightening to think of your professional culture as a human system—a dynamic, complex interplay among colleagues who, together, imagine, design, create, align, and deliver, against a backdrop of structures and practices that play out over time. Seen this way, culture is alive, shaped and reinforced daily by everyday actions and interactions. With this as a frame, it’s more possible do something with an organization’s culture.
Recognizing and understanding your organization’s human system
The late system-dynamics expert Donella Meadows defined a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.”1 Organizational designers and theorists have applied the tools of system dynamics (stocks and flows, causal-loop diagrams, and more) to map and explain how organizations work in practice. In turn, systems thinking has emerged as a powerful approach to understand the complexities of organizations and other systems, defined well by MIT’s Peter Senge: “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’”2
Systems have specifics characteristics. Among them:
- They are made up of components that interact and interrelate.
- They are complex.
- They have boundaries.
- They have objectives (if they are created by human beings).
- They can be designed or can emerge, or both.
- They are dynamic.
- They use structures to hold themselves together.
- Structures generate and sustain behaviors.
- Feedback loops alter or reinforce a system.
It’s easy to see your organization through the lens of these characteristics, and in particular the human systems that make professional organizations go: People work together to accomplish certain objectives—bounded by procedures, policies, and structures; and through people’s decisions, interactions, actions, and shared learning, the system is constantly morphing and reinforcing itself in an intricate dance that is expressed many times every day.
There are many dimensions to optimizing organizational human systems that will be explored in future posts. In this one, let’s examine an important and practical opportunity: How to introduce smart changes to your human system by employing a powerful principle of systems thinking.
Improve your organization’s human system by using a lever
The principle is this: Apply one or more carefully chosen actions to your system, then reinforce those actions, and the system will begin to change. It is akin to using a lever: A heavy boulder may be immovable by pushing directly on it, but with the right, well-positioned lever, you have more power to shift it, with comparatively less effort.
In your organization’s human system, what levers could you apply that would most effective in improving it? Before answering that question, ask another one: What outcome are we trying to achieve?
Let’s use an example, a small case study, to illustrate how this can work.
Suppose you wish to establish a culture of greater transparency in your organization, in which information is shared freely and professionals feel empowered to do better work because they know and understand what’s going on. That’s the outcome you seek to achieve.
There may be many components and reinforcing structures that currently limit transparency in your organization, such as policies that discourage information sharing; power structures that thwart a free flow of knowledge; outdated communication platforms that limit information transfer; and habits in which knowledge is seen as something to hoard rather than to share generously. These and other elements work together to undermine transparency—a system within the larger system.
Perhaps some components, such as the organizational hierarchy and habits of behavior, appear too complex, impenetrable, and even political to use as your levers for change. Instead, you identify three levers within your span of control and that will be less difficult to apply:
- You establish new practices and policies regarding meetings pertaining to key business decisions, so that most meetings become open for staff to attend; recordings and minutes are made available afterward; and executives agree to host question-and-answer sessions about any decisions as a standard practice. These are policy and process changes.
- You expand your decision-making processes to make more decisions with staff input and, in some cases, invite the staff to vote on them so more people have a say in the organizational direction. These are process changes.
- You help people in your organization to build new skills in effective interpersonal communication, so they are equipped to communicate more transparently. This is a process change.
These levers activate concentrated, contained changes that have both practical and symbolic importance. Through policy shifts, they signal a new, more transparent way of working. Through processes, they initiate different habits in information sharing. Over time, the aspects of the human system pertaining to transparency begin to change.
Important caveats in using a lever to change your organization’s human system
The small and relatively simple levers in the example above suggest that it can be comparatively easy to change a system. However:
- Changes in systems become apparent over time, not immediately. Do not expect instant results.
- Systems tend to be self-reinforcing, defaulting to the status quo even after interventions. Therefore, repeat the new behaviors and actions multiple times so the default state becomes replaced with new ones. Don’t expect a single action to be sufficient in a culture change.
- Beware countervailing forces. As you introduce new structures or behaviors—say, new practices and policies to promote greater organizational transparency—watch for actions that do the opposite—for instance, certain leaders who continue to hoard information rather than share it.
Mindful of the caveats, and as you apply levers to shift your culture, use Senge’s systems-thinking “discipline for seeing wholes,” to observe patterns of change: What are people saying and doing differently compared to earlier periods? Where are we seeing more success, and where are we seeing less success? What are the trends?
Systems are complex, and so is your organizational human system. Systems are also dynamic. The wise use of well-selected, focused actions can streamline changes to a system, and should be a central element in the playbook of any leader who seeks to make positive change to organizational culture.
1 Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems, 2008.
2 Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 2006.
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