Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Culture Change-"Act Your Way Into Being"

Long ago I became an adherent of systems thinking. One of the fundamentals of systems thinking is that "structure drives behavior".  The iceberg metaphor is often used to understand those structures that are both visible in an organization and those that are invisible..."below the water line".  I used this model some months ago when writing about diversity.  I offer it again in a slightly different context
In systems thinking theory, behavior follows these structures, both those above and below the water line.  Let's take organizational reporting lines as an example.  The reporting lines structure driver is basically  that the person who does your annual performance appraisal and determines your salary and bonus heavily influences your behavior.  Those reporting lines can be configured to optimize a function, or a region or a global strategic business unit.   Many global organizations try to mitigate optimizing one way or the other by creating a "hard" reporting line as well as a "dotted" line...just another example of a structure.  Likewise an organization's values..."honesty, integrity, respect for people" as examples, are drivers of behavior.  The process of resource flows...people and money...also drive behavior.  I'll not go through every element of the iceberg...just summarize by saying that systems thinkers believe that behaviours are driven by by those structures both above and below the water line.

When it comes to those things below the water line, I've come to believe there is more of a dynamic relationship between behaviors and structures.  It's just as important to behave your way into thinking differently as it is to think your way into behaving act your way into being.

The US Army of the early 1980's was in the midst of a huge transformation.  It had gone from a draftee Army to an all volunteer force; from an all male force to one with both men and women; it was on the way to recovery from drug and race problems that plagued it in the 1970's.  In addition, there was a new doctrine and strategy that called for changes to organizational structures, equipment, training and ways of leading.  One vestige of the "old Army" was the attitude towards alcohol.  Drinking at lunch in moderation was acceptable and 25 cent drinks at Friday night happy hours were common. Alcohol offenses were not condoned but handled at a local level with no career consequences.  Gen John Wickham, the then Chief of Staff of the US Army, realized the Army was no longer the domain of single men living in barracks and male career officers and non-commissioned officers but necessarily more family oriented.  He set out to change that attitude towards alcohol.  He chose to change the behavior and the above the water line structure, in order to change the underlying structure.  "One strike and you're out" became the standard for officer alcohol related offenses, discounted drinks at Army facilities were halted, drinking during duty hours was banned and to reinforce this behaviour, he severely punished a well regarded general officer early in the campaign to reinforce acceptable behavior.   Over time, those stories, norms and unwritten rules became the drivers....but he started with the behavior.

What's this mean to a leader?  It means you have to do both things.  Yes, you have to change the underlying structure to get lasting change but that can take a long time. You can influence the speed at which this takes place by expressing and reinforcing the desired behavior in the short term.  As examples changing behaviors related to Safety, Graft and Corruption and the proper balance between Deliver of Results and Values can be immediate.  Over time those changed behaviors will become the underlying structure.

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