Structure and Culture

Thinking out loud here.

During the past two days, I have laid out posts related to –

  • In spite of clear work instructions, does culture trump output?
  • In spite of personality inputs, does culture trump output?

If you learn anything about me, you know that I am a structure guy.

  • For those who think their organizational challenges revolve around personality, I tell you, it’s not a personality problem.
  • For those who think they have a communication problem, it’s not a communication problem, it’s a structure problem.

Structure is the defined accountability and authority in working relationships, both managerial relationships and cross-functional working relationships. Structure is the context, in which we work.

Culture is that set of beliefs that drive our required behaviors in the work that we do together. Culture is the context, in which we work.

So, I am beginning to wonder if organizational structure and culture are inextricably tied together. Does structure equal culture? Does culture equal structure? Do the warm and fuzzy concepts of culture have a science underneath defined by levels of work and structure?

I believe so.

Culture Trumps Personality

“Yes, my work instructions were very clear, but we still had re-work on the back end. Like the team didn’t listen to what I told them. Even after I had them repeat the instructions back to me. I am a new manager to this team, but they seemed to understand what I said,” Rory explained.

“Tell me about the team,” I wanted to know.

“Not much to tell. When I took over the role, I asked to see the employee files. Our company does a pretty good workup on personality profiles, even for technicians. The profiles were normal, what I would expect. The company even created a standard profile for a technician that they were hiring to. Each team member was pretty much the same. They each showed attention to detail, compliance to rules and standards, persistence to complete a project. I don’t understand what happened to them.”

“What do you think changed?” I asked.

“It’s like they were different people when they took the profile and when they were actually in the work environment. It’s like when they walked out onto the field of work, things changed,” Rory shook his head.

“What do you think changed?” I repeated.

“The work environment,” Rory was searching for an answer. “The environment they were working in did not demand the attention to detail, compliance or persistence they had all demonstrated on their profiles.”

“It was a different context?” I wondered. “It was a different context. So, the work environment, the context trumps personality?”

For a more complete example of Culture Trumping Personality.

Culture Trumps Clarity

“But, I set the context for my team. We talked about the work we would receive from the process step before. We talked about how we would inspect our work before we handed it off to the next process step. I thought I was very clear,” Rory complained.

“So, what happened?” I asked.

“It’s like the team wasn’t listening,” he replied. “I even had them repeat the steps back to me, to make sure I was understood.”

“So, what happened?” I repeated. “Why did you feel the need to be so explicit? Why the need for clarity?”

“We’ve had quality problems out of this team, seems like, forever. They don’t seem to care. They come to work, go through the motions. End of day, they head home. That’s why I was called in to manage this team.”

“So, what was different, after you explained the sequence, described the context for their work?” I probed.

“Nothing changed. We had the same incidence of quality re-works. Almost like shoddy work is part of the team culture.”

“So, what you are telling me is that culture trumps clear work instructions?”
Interesting perspective from Gustavo Grodnitzky in Culture Trumps Everything.

How to Predict a Departure

“Who is responsible for the team?” I asked. “Who is responsible for the performance of the team, and all the things that affect performance?”

Melanie looked around her office, as if someone was going to appear.

I continued. “If it’s not you, as the department manager, if it’s not you, then who?”

Melanie’s eyes stopped skirting the room. No hero appeared. She floated her excuse, “But how am I responsible that one of my team members quit?”

“That’s a very good question. How are you, as the manager, responsible that one of your team members quit?”

“What, am I supposed to be clairvoyant?” Melanie snapped.

“That would be helpful,” I nodded. “But let’s say you don’t have supernatural powers. How could you, as the manager, know enough about your team, to have predicted this departure?”

Who Sets the Context of Work?

“But, you are still here. What’s in it for you? What keeps you here?” I asked.

Riley had to think. Turnover on his team was high. Morale was in the dumps. He described his team as lifeless. “I guess I just don’t feel the same way they do. I know the work is hard. I know we have to pay attention. I know the work doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock. But for some reason, for me, it’s important to be here.”

“Why do you think it’s important for you and not so important for your team? At the end of the day, you are all working on the same projects.”

“Well, my manager and I talk about the work,” he explained. “We talk about the results of the what we do, as a company. I feel that I make a contribution, as a manager. What I do is important. In spite of how hard it is, it’s important.”

“You feel that way, because you and your manager talk about the work, the importance of the work? Have you ever talked about the work with your team?” I asked.

“Yeah, but, it’s different with them. I mean, they don’t get the whole picture. They don’t seem to understand it the same way that I do. For them, it’s just a job.”

“So, the context of their work, is that it’s just a job? Who is accountable for creating that context?”

They Don’t Get Yelled At

“How long has your crew been together?” I asked.

“Humph,” Riley snorted. “A couple of people have been here over a year, but most, just a few months. Lots of turnover.”

“And what is the cost of that turnover?”

“Expensive. It’s not that the work we do is that complicated, but there are so many details to keep track of that it takes a while to get your arms around everything. And we don’t do much formal training, more like shadowing other people on the team who have been here. Seems like just when we get someone trained up, they quit.”

“So, what’s in it, the job, I mean, for someone who sticks with it, pays attention to detail, sniffs out problems before they mushroom?”

Riley was quiet. “They don’t get yelled at,” he replied.

The Reactor Doesn’t Melt Down and Nobody Dies

“I don’t know why my team is behaving this way,” Riley complained. “I know we drive our people hard, and I know we expect a lot from them, but they knew that when they signed up for the job. We are a very intense organization.”

“How are they behaving?” I wanted to know.

“You can see them dragging into a meeting. Smiles are few and far between. It’s like they need a vacation really bad. Bordering on burn-out. I know we expect them to be responsive on their smart-phones, even after hours, but we are in the service business. We don’t know when our customers are going to call, or some project is going to go sideways.”

“So, in addition to working a normal day-shift, they are on-call after hours?”

Riley nodded. “Yes, but they get on-call pay, even if nothing happens. And we rotate that, so it’s not like it’s every day.”

“So, what is causing the fatigue,” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just that we are intense. If we relax, details get missed. And, missed details can turn into real problems. We have to keep our guard up.”

“And, if you keep your guard up and no details are missed, what happens?”

Riley had to stop and think. “Nothing special. Things go smooth, no one panics, but it’s not like we win the Super Bowl.”

“When your team does a really good job, it’s nothing special. So, who appreciates it, when they do a really good job?”

“No one really,” Riley admitted. “A really good job just means that no one is upset, mostly the customer.”

“Kind of like running a nuclear power plant,” I said. “If we do our job well, everyone gets electricity, the reactor doesn’t melt down and nobody dies.”

Sure Fire Participation

“Yes, but if people are afraid to participate, afraid to contribute their ideas in a meeting, how do you deal with that?” Reggie asked.

“Do your team members have ideas?” I responded.

“Well, yes, some sort of an ideas.”

“So, the problem is, to get the idea out of their head, with zero possibility that it might be rejected by the group? How would you do that?” I stared at Reggie while I reached over and pulled a pen out of my pocket and set it on the table.

“Get them to write their idea down?” Reggie guessed. I nodded. “But still, how do you get them to share their ideas with each other, with the group?”

“It’s too late, the idea is already out of their head. By the way, what happens to the quality of any idea as it moves from the mind to a piece of paper?”

“Well, it improves.”

“So, now, each person owns a much improved idea on a piece of paper in front of them. Divide the group into teams of two or three and have them share their idea with that small group. I guarantee, there will be no hesitation in that small group.

“The next step is to have the small groups report their ideas to the large group. The quality of ideas will be very high and everyone will have participated. Remember, the purpose of this meeting was simply to get your people discussing ideas with each other.”

Everyone Contributes, No One is Wrong

“How could you create an environment of trust, where, no matter the contribution, it was accepted and valued?” I repeated.

Reggie was stumped, at least for the moment. I think it was more that he didn’t think this kind of conversation was possible with his team.

“Reggie, what if you opened the meeting with something like this, a Good News exercise? Go around the room and have each person describe something good that had happened to them in the past week, business or personal.”

Reggie began to stare at the right hand corner of the ceiling, making a picture in his mind.

I broke his concentration. “What do you accomplish with an exercise like that?” I asked.

Reggie’s head began to slowly nod, then he spoke. “Okay, first everybody participates. Second, no one can be wrong.”

“Exactly, that’s where we start.”

Getting the Team to Take Accountability

“So, Reggie, here is my challenge to you. In what way can you get your managers to talk about those behaviors instead of you?”

“But I’m the manager,” Reggie protested. “I thought I was the one to set the direction. I thought I was the one to give the marching orders. I thought it was my responsibility to tell them what to do. It’s my responsibility to manage them.”

“Reggie, people don’t want to be managed. People want to be lead. It is your responsibility to set the direction, but from there, your role becomes leadership. How do you get people to think? How do you get people to consider different alternatives? How do you get people talking?”

Reggie was quick to respond, “That’s easy. You just ask them questions. But I have tried that before and most times, I don’t get any response.”

“And why don’t you get a response. What’s the problem? What’s going on the mind of your team member?”

“Well,” Reggie started, “sometimes they just don’t have anything to say, and sometimes they are afraid to say anything.”

“Where does that fear come from?” I continued.

Reggie stopped. “I guess they don’t want to be wrong.”

“How could you change that? How could you create an environment of trust, where no matter the contribution, it was accepted and valued?”