In the world of Business Buzzword Bingo ‘culture’ is a winner — there seems no problem that can’t be solved by ‘fixing culture’. The only drawback is that no two people even agree on what culture is. And, even if they did, the bigger problem is how do you ‘fix’ something you can’t see or touch?

Many organisations display values prominently on their walls, but do people walking past them every day pay any more attention to them than they would graffiti scrawled on a wall? Wall-mounted platitudes are not only largely ignored therefore, but can also be more of a hinderance than a help to organisations trying to ‘direct’ their culture — providing the political animals with the language of conformity; enabling them to veil their actions under the cloak of acceptable terminology.

Play with culture at your peril

Do you think it’s possible to change the culture of a country? If not, then why would you think it possible to change an organisation’s culture — is it because there are less people, less history, less entrenched identity? But have you ever tried to change a single person (a spouse perhaps)? How did that turn out? Now multiply those efforts by a few hundred, a few thousand, or tens of thousands and you begin the appreciate the futility of many cultural change programs.

Organisations have three levels of culture (E.Schien):

  1. Artefacts: how the system presents itself internally (on the walls of the offices) and externally (in its marketing communications). How the company looks — its brand logo, colours, language used — represents the most open signal of its culture

It’s in the shared assumptions — shared in stories ‘around the water cooler’ [1] — where the real culture resides secretly. It hides from those who seek to change it by cleverly ‘managing managers’ — selectively allowing what gets escalated through the hierarchy. Yet it’s understood ‘on the shop floor’ by those who need to navigate it effectively if they’re to survive and thrive around here. It’s here that any culture change starts — from the ground up.

“Everything man is and does is modified by learning and is therefore malleable. But once learned, these behaviour patterns, these habitual responses, these ways of interacting gradually sink below the surface of the mind and, like the admiral of a submerged submarine fleet, control from the depths.” (E.Hall — Beyond Culture)

The Myth of Culture Change

Culture evolves — disruptive stories can challenge people’s mental models, their mindsets, but it can’t be re-engineered. Even firing most of the team and hiring another will have less impact than expected as the stories about ‘how things are really done around here’ are rapidly disseminated by those that remain, by customers who still deal with you, and by other stakeholders who reinforce the boundaries which constrain you (‘this is what we’ve always got’) and, of course, by the leadership who remain.

“…culture is emergent and is the result of millions of interactions, behaviours, artefacts and stories that people build up over time. It is unpredictable and results in surprise” [2]

The laws of physics describes time’s arrow as irreversible — once a culture has evolved it’s impossible to reverse, or start again. This doesn’t mean we can’t improve the culture — as we can amplify beneficial behaviours and dampen those that aren’t — but this requires working with the soil not the flowers (or weeds) which spring from it.

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” ― Pablo Neruda

Culture emerges from interactions between people — to change the culture you need to change the patterns of these interactions. For example, if the perception is that leaders only look after themselves around here then any event will be filtered through the assumption of ‘what’s in it for the leaders’ first. Changing this entrenched perspective requires changing the nature of the interactions — acting to counter the prevailing narratives.

You don’t fight narratives with counter-narratives — you fight them with action that leads to new, authentic, narratives emerging that nudges the culture and shapes how people act.

“You can aspire all you want to a particular future culture but it is impossible to script or predict that evolution.” (C.Corrigan)

Many leaders are accepting that traditional Command and Control approaches aren’t as effective anymore — there is simply too much happening in a complex organisation for a leader to control. Yet leaders are reluctant to let go of the power of Command — what they seek is an adaptive culture that responds more quickly and effectively to these commands. Instead of traditional Command and Control leaders are seeking ‘responsive organisations’.

Responsive, agile, adaptive organisations adopt ’cellular’ team approaches — small, autonomous teams that pick up and act on opportunities quickly. Their advantage is in being able to form and disband quickly, depending on need. But they appear hard to manage with traditional top-down approaches — particularly problematical from a middle-management perspective. Management’s uncomfortableness with self-organisation at the local level is evident in the efforts many leaders continue to put in trying to breakdown silos in their organisations.

When the need for organisational responsiveness — or agility — conflicts with management styles then it’s management that needs to find a new approach.

21st Century Command & Control

Command and Control may have a bad reputation but it continues to appeal to leaders. However, the rise of complexity has meant that leaders who want to be on top of things are diving even deeper into day-to-day interactions — exercising Command at ever lower levels of the value chain and exercising Control with micromanagement (rather than focusing on the strategic thinking they are being paid to do).

We argue that it’s time leaders re-gained the strategic level by using a reinvigorated Command and Control approach to lead their organisations in volatile times.

“What we all want is to be valued member of a winning team on an inspiring mission” (G.Weston)

Command means setting the direction. This requires a clear view of reality — not empty slogan making that mobilises nobody. A highly-bureaucratic, risk-adverse organisation announcing an Agile Transformation to become entrepreneurial is believed by no-one. A clear awareness of the current situation is paramount — it’s the Command that can align diverse peoples around a single objective.

‘The dumbest idea in business’ — maximising stakeholder returns — is an obstacle to leaders. It’s difficult for leaders to create an inspiring mission if everyone knows the profit motive is the only metric that counts. Flowery mission statements just add lipstick to a pig — people aren’t stupid, no-one is fooled and the leader’s Command for the direction to take is dead in the water. Culture is the BS filter — if your Command isn’t authentic, intelligently-developed, and backed by evidence it’ll move no-one nowhere.

Control from the Depths

If you have a smart enough Command though (one you can clearly communicate the ‘why’ of, as in ‘why here and not there’) you can afford to loosen the reigns a little as a leader — letting the horse ‘have it’s head’ to increase it’s speed. This creates space for interactions around a common purpose between leadership, middle-management, front-line and back office staff, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. And it is from these interactions that new insights and opportunities emerge.

“When environmental demands change, new cells can be formed and old ones disbanded as necessary….Control of such a networked organisation is not provided by tight top-down controls. Instead, a combination of loose-tight controls is applied…Loose control comes from interaction between supervisor and employees that encourages information sharing, trust and learning. The key to loose control is management’s trust in employees to act according to the shared values, therefore setting them free to search for opportunities, learn, and apply accumulating knowledge to innovative efforts.” (In ‘Science, Strategy, War’. Frans Osinga (2005))

In a more complex, uncertain word, leaders must allow experimentation in their organisations if they are to learn where the new opportunities — where their customers’ evolving needs are leading them — and where the current boundaries to their capabilities are.

While you let the horse gallop towards the direction you have pointed him you — as leader and rider — work with him to swerve or leap unexpected obstacles in the way. This requires constant observation [3] — seeking to make adjustments as you go, in real time. And this is Control for the 21st century: not micromanagement, but alignment around a Command and a direction and working together — with mutual trust, like a rider and horse — to make it up as you go along: exploiting value in uncertainty.

Operating at the strategic level a leader can now exert light-touch Control — giving people autonomy to self-organise (not imposing a structure of self-organisation across the organisation because that’s what the latest fad is) and meet the challenges they face. This frees up leaders to take a step back and monitor for effectiveness — where it’s not working s/he can get involved and help correct the course — where it’s working they provide more resources, highlighting on-going success that other crews can learn from directly.

Control is less about telling people what to do and more about setting the direction and establishing the boundaries for action. This lets the organisation — as a complex adaptive system [4] — adapt and figure out contextually-appropriate responses. Where failure occurs the leader can intervene, address the issue locally and understand why that part of the system was failing and what lessons need to be learned and applied more widely.

A system with clear Command and responsive Control — like a rider and horse, or wise Executive and organisation — enjoys responsiveness at speed. It can also develop better links within and across its networks to become a more adaptive entity. It is real action that changes culture: not culture that changes action.

Govern the state by being straight-forward; wage war by being crafty. — Laozi