Is Workplace Culture the Right Kind of Revolution?

The wall of plexiglass, by ebt47563 (=)
The wall of plexiglass.  Photo courtesy of ebt47563.

Exactly how do you change organizational culture?  This is a good HBR article from June 2017 about attempt to change corporate culture from the bottom-up.  It’s a story about Dr. Reddy’s, a global pharmaceutical company based in India and led by G.V. Prasad.  The authors are Bryan Walker from IDEO and Sarah A. Soule from Stanford Business School.

Dr. Reddy’s process of culture change began with significant ground research to find out what their staff, providers and investors needed when dealing with customers.  They brought their goals down to four simple words that brought it all together: good health can’t wait.  Instead of selling the slogan through posters and speeches they chose to demonstrate their purpose through actions.  The initiative named projects in packaging, sales, and internal data to advance the new vision.  There were some immediate impacts.  One scientist broke a number of company rules and produced a new product in 15 days, having prioritized new efforts to match the vision.

The comparison to social movements is important, because movements start with an emotion rather than a call to action.  Movements start small, “with a group of passionate enthusiasts who deliver modest wins.”  Momentum builds through networks, penetrating power structures and leadership.

There are also “safe havens,” places where activists can behave differently from the dominant culture and discuss their goals.  In innovative organizations, research labs are often built as separate mico-organizations that cultivate change as prep-work for the larger organization.  This story resonates with me, because disruptive workforce analytics will occasionally fall of deaf ears.  The analysis needs to be created in a manner which partially ignores pre-existing agendas or presumptions of how things would normally be done.  The decision of whether to apply new ideas might belong within a more formal process, but when experimenting with messy new ideas, to be sequestered is ideal.

Beyond the HBR article two additional models are appropriate to discuss the nature of change.

Innovating Technology and Trends Through Social Networks

The first model is the diffusion of innovations as described by Everett Rogers.  In this model, there is a small avant-garde of weirdos who just get into stuff that is new and interesting.  That crowd of innovators will not have the full opportunity to make money or make it big.  But their new findings diffuse through social networks, based on peoples’ network connections and their readiness to consider new ideas.

There are several hold-outs, such as the laggard crowd who resists change until it is impossible to do so.  The biggest difficulty is the early-stage challenge of “Crossing the Chasm” where the new idea has won-over a small crowd of early-adopters who are about 13.5% of the population.  The challenge is that sometimes there’s something about the new idea that doesn’t mesh with the next crowd, the early majority.  Some examples might be that the new technology has a difficult user interface, or the social trend is incompatible with the conventional lifestyle of those in the burbs.

In my opinion, the classic example of this challenge is the hands-free bluetooth headset that you see people wearing when they’re talking on the phone while walking down the street.  The technology has been in public for more than fifteen years and our first instinct is still that we want the caller to get professional help.  And that’s if you’re not also angry at them about a misunderstanding.

Using Social Disobedience Tools to Change Workplace Culture From Within

Another compelling cultural change model is the Spectrum of Allies model from George Lakey of Training for Change.  Lakey is highly experienced in training social justice activists in civil disobedience.  I attended a couple of workshops with Lakey when I was part of the labour movement, and his spectrum model is eye-opening.

The key diagram is a semi-circle, kind of like a half-order of a large pizza with six or eight slices.  The idea is that everyone can be categorized according to their level of enthusiasm for, or resistance to, an agenda or new idea.  Then you lay these wedges out in order, with the most supportive categories on the left and the most resistant on the right.  Your goal is to shift all of society one wedge to the left.  That is, the biggest hold-outs still get your attention, you’re just trying to convince them to become only moderately opposed.  Those in the middle, you can tip towards you slightly.  Those who are with you from the start, those can be your strongest advocates.

What really holds the model together is that you are shifting the entire social culture towards your way of thinking, resulting in culture change.  Everyone is a big deal, everyone receives the attention they deserve.  It’s very different from that us-against-them stuff that we’re accustomed to seeing during elections.  And it is very different from the notion that the main difference in the key players is their place on the org chart.

What this means for workforce analytics, is that you will require several different vehicles to bring meaningful information into human resource decision-making.  While there will be those who are hungry for the information, there will be others who need to simply be sold on the notion that it is not a threat.  While innovative findings might be compelling amongst an in-crowd, getting the information through cliques and interests will require bridging links and data translation.  You can build new ideas in self-imposed isolation, but at some point you step into public and advance it your ideas through the audience.

But before you step out, please put away your Bluetooth headset.

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