Culture or Control ...

a management challenge

I have had the good fortune to work in and alongside organisations - universities and in government - that are excellent at what they do, at least at the 'sharp-end' of their mission.

The people who work in those organisations are committed and have a justified pride in what they do, and in the organisations they work for. It is difficult, in most cases, to understand fully how this excellence is achieved and maintained. If you ask people close to the work they will probably say something about organisational culture: a framework of behaviours, expectations and relationships that is reinforced through the operation of collective oversight (this, by the way, is not a formal definition, but the nearest I can get to being precise). Organisational culture is the product of what everyone does and is reinforced by everyone.

Organisations that aspire to excellence, and many, of course, do not, cannot reliably call on organisational culture. They must use control: rules, policies and constrained decision authority, to achieve the desired outcomes. This, if done with determination, can yield significant progress. I do not underestimate this. Control can get you to the lip of excellence, but not over it, at least not sustainably. Furthermore, control has negative side effects. It is costly, slows down organisational performance, suppresses innovation, eats into morale and can be readily misapplied. Control places power in the hands of a few. That leaves success much more vulnerable to those of the ‘few’ lacking sufficient knowledge and insight.

‘Navigation by control’ works when the environment is stable and well-understood: the rules for success in that environment can be clearly codified, based on past experience, and enforced. Control is almost always based on a backward-looking perspective. ‘Navigation by culture’ - how we do things, rather than what we do -  unlocks scope to deal with new and unfamiliar challenges.

Thus, the management challenge ... how do you move from control to culture without losing the hard-won benefits of a system of control? There are some further risks - the use of 'culture' as an excuse to avoid addressing hard problems of resources and systems, and permitting negative behaviours to become embedded. It seems to me there is a limited range of tools to achieve the desired change: role modelling, empowerment, transparency, recognition and narrative.

  • Almost anybody who has worked within an excellent organisation will recognise the power of role modelling. In my own work I have consistently sought, though rarely managed, to live up to the example of particular colleagues, my role models. Their expectations, seldom articulated but nevertheless well understood, have been the benchmark for my performance and the motivator of the effort required.

  • Empowerment brings control close to the work. It relies upon individuals rather than systems and assumes trust rather than the operation of negative incentives. Of course, empowerment comes with accountability for outcomes, but this is not the same thing as blame for failure to adhere to controls.

  • Excellent organisations practice radical transparency. The operation of social mechanisms demand that work is visible, the sense that decisions are subject to collective scrutiny and oversight, and that reputation or standing are at stake. This, of course, parallels the experience of high risk operational cultures in medicine, aviation and the military, where there are clear rules and strong schemes of authority, but adherence is cultural.

  • This transparency also manifest in systems of social recognition. Badges, awards, words of praise reinforce positive culture. They are too easily dismissed as 'froth' but are in fact a key support and reinforcement to a culture of excellence.

  • Finally, narrative. Excellent organisations tell stories and share them. These are stories of great achievements and, occasionally, of tragic downfalls, they are stories that illuminate the shared values of the organisation and underpin its distinctiveness. Stories transmit expectations and explain behaviours and have value within and beyond the organisational boundaries.

Supplanting control with culture, without losing ground, is a challenge. Embarking on the journey is a risk.

Credit: Claire H for excellent suggestions