By Peter Norlin. If we really want to wade into the weeds here, that is, if we wish to create a practical, do-it-yourself guide to designing workplace cultures where innovation can flourish—then to start, we need to ask ourselves some questions. The answers to these questions, like the stones that Hansel and Gretel dropped behind them as they went into the woods, will outline a trail that should predictably lead us, through backward planning, to our own “necessary future,” to our own desired culture of innovation.
This trail of questions follows an organic sequence, linked, in some obvious ways, to the design path I outlined in my first post. There I proposed that we can design workplace cultures only indirectly–first by deconstructing “culture” into a series of behaviors, and then by designing and installing specific structures that will reliably evoke those behaviors. Before we reach that stage, however, the answers to this sequence of questions will also forge a chain of decisions that will determine how the overall process of designing workplace structures actually unfolds.
The initial decisions in this chain are meta-design choices, and thus they influence (and ultimately dictate) the design of our design process. As such, these earlier, concrete decisions frame the context of culture change, and I think it’s important to see them simultaneously through two lenses: as a chain of discrete, critical steps required to reach a final endpoint, and also as essential, inseparable parts of a “whole” process, a process that will inevitably reflect our hopes, expectations, and assumptions about the future we want. And fortunately, because answers to these initial questions will always give us clear messages about the dynamics we are likely to encounter throughout a culture design process, they enable us to maintain both a realistic and a strategic perspective during the design and execution of our plans for change.
At later points in this conversation, we’ll take a long, careful look at those questions that lead us explicitly to the design of workplace structures. To initiate a process of culture change, however, we first have to identify the boundary at the edge of a workplace system, scan that whole system with a wide-angle mindset, and ask ourselves two all-important questions:
Who wants this “new” culture? And how much do they want it?
We have to start here, because in my experience, everything that happens next, all the thrills and chills that accompany any workplace change, can be predicted in advance from our answers these questions.
What we’re seeking through these first questions is clarity about the sponsorship of our culture design project. We’ve learned through many years of watching complex, large-scale change initiatives succeed and fail that one of the most critical conditions for success is who the sponsors of change actually are (“who wants it?”), and how committed they are to the outcomes and consequences of that initiative (“how much do they want it?”). One of the many points of debate that surrounds this issue of sponsorship is whether formal authority or informal influence is likely to provide a more solid platform for sustainable change. For instance, if we wish to encourage people to use a new set of behaviors that express a commitment to innovation, are they more likely to do so if this shift is required by the organization, or if it moves spontaneously through social networks? Or are both types of sponsorship necessary as a condition for workplace-wide change?
While OD practitioners do occasionally see the reality of Margaret Mead’s familiar aphorism (i.e., “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”) embodied in a formal workplace setting, my own experience tends to reinforce the importance of integrating vertical with horizontal sponsorship. That is, in large organizations, complex initiatives that require people to change their behavior in visible, substantial ways seem to benefit from having both types of sponsors: those with clear, formal authority and unambiguous position power, and those who are central nodes in invisible, yet powerful relational networks. Regardless of its source, however, the most important criteria for all sponsorship are that it be strong, focused, and consistent.
Because if we don’t have people advocating clearly and relentlessly for any type of workplace change, but especially for a change in culture, we would be wise to back away from such a project. In our own case in point—designing and creating a culture of innovation—we will need a sponsor or sponsors who really care about creating a new spirit of innovation at work; who are willing to tolerate the mess that typically results when people struggle to learn to do things differently; and, most critically, who themselves are willing to experiment openly with new behaviors and risk making mistakes. If our sponsors don’t meet these key criteria, then our designs for change will probably remain just that—designs. In other words, when we intend to change behavior at work, everything depends on sponsorship.
Once sponsorship is solid and stable, though, our next question pinpoints yet another key “must have:” clarity of purpose. I hope you’ll join me.