Culture is, pretty much, a force behind everything we do as human beings. Indeed culture is to humans as water is to fish. Asking them ‘What is water?’ would seem a futile question. It is simply, and in a profound way, the medium in which they live their lives.
To we humans, culture is both the light we project and the lens by which we see it. Sir Edward B Tylor, considered by many as the founder of cultural anthropology, said culture is ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’.
These attributes define us as human beings, taking us beyond mere material existence—common to all in the animal kingdom—and offering us a means of interpreting the world around us, interacting with it and creating change.
My purpose here, though, is not to look at culture from such a broad perspective. I want to narrow down the inquiry to explore what it is about the cultural domain that we need to take account of in any exploration of people at work.
Several years ago, I led an intervention on a troubled construction site that was run as a joint venture between a Tier-One Australian contractor and a European multinational. The head of the new venture needed to know when first production was going to happen. It would have a direct bearing on the total cost of the project, the timing of revenue generation and any damages they would have to pay to the owner if expectations weren’t met. My firm was asked to help define the project’s critical path.
A particularly difficult part of the construction phase involved choreographing the various trades—civil, mechanical and electrical—to minimise downtime and rework. Computer modelling had already provided a three-dimensional representation of the material components of the area. We added the time dimension to the model so everyone involved could visualise what was being planned, identify any clashes and make suggestions for improvements.
Furthermore, it was possible to integrate the computer-modelling program with the project’s procurement system. Then, through some clever colour coding, we could identify what was already on site, what was on the way and what needed expediting. For the younger generation, who grew up doing their engineering on computers, it was the realisation of a vision, where the project could be built twice—once on a computer, the second time for real.
For the project director, however, who had worked on many of Australia’s iconic engineering projects, it was a nightmare. The man was coming to the end of his career and couldn’t get his head around the idea that his command and control came from opening his laptop, clicking the mouse and striking a few keys. This man’s experience was built on forty years of unfurling printed drawings in construction huts, getting dirt on his boots and directing traffic around the site. To him, work meant a load of rebar steel arriving and him being on site to instruct a foreman to get one of his people to unload the bundles, group them by construction zone, and start the process of tying them into cages. The new system meant the cages would arrive pre-assembled and bar-coded for scanning and positioning to the relevant part of the site.
The project director wasn’t the only person having difficulty with the new system—a genuine generational divide saw splits among the professional engineers all the way through to the foreman and tradies. Some were perfectly comfortable with computers and loved the idea of the virtualisation of work; others hated it for taking away their physical control of the world around them.
Storytelling is necessary, but not sufficient
Part of my process was to work with a colleague from the venture introducing the new technology in as seamless and effective a way as possible. She was a smart engineer with a doctorate in the adoption of innovation in the construction industry. One of her tasks was to turn an existing publication about the company history into an e-book so it might reach a much wider audience, especially for staff to appreciate the deep roots of their culture. Fortunately, she’d found some remarkable stories in the book about the company’s early days.
One story told of the owners of the business—at that time a private company in family hands—deciding to buy an aeroplane. The plane wasn’t bought because they felt that they’d ‘made it’ and could now afford the high life. Rather, it would expedite their processes and help bring their projects in on time and on budget. These men (and they were all men—another sign of those times) had to be on the ground at geographically dispersed sites to identify and resolve the most pressing problems. Since time was key, the means to travel quickly from site to site was crucial. Here, technology was solving a problem of time and space.
Another story involved the teams scheduling their work phone calls for the unusual time of 5am—not because they had a particular desire to extend their working days. But in the 1960s, many places in Australia were still only served with party lines; if you didn’t get in early, you took the risk of not getting your call. In a world of telegrams, a dawn phone call was a technological competitive advantage.
Similarly, whenever their supplier, Caterpillar, came up with a new bulldozer capable of moving more dirt more quickly, this company was first in the queue to buy it. Everyone, from management to workers, could see the productivity gains, even if there was an upfront investment.
Finally, my colleague found a heart-warming story of the pregnant wife of one of the senior managers crossing a flooding river to carry dynamite in her ‘ute’ to the site where it was needed. She did this with little regard for her own health and safety. This bold woman was imbued with the spirit of doing whatever it took to build the Australia of the future. On time, and on budget!
We felt each of these anecdotes could help us in our quest to shift perspective of the digiphobes and bring them into this brave new world. Each, we figured, could act as anchors into the past, allowing us to show that the adoption of the latest technology—in this case the computer technology we were advocating—fitted well with the organisation’s ‘can do’ culture.
We were sure it mattered to our naysayers, that this culture had helped the company grow from a small family business to a listed corporation, doing work in Australia and all across Asia and the Middle East.
However, romantic stories of derring-do didn’t cut it. And it seemed to matter little that their stated company values—emblazoned on their masthead—were trust, innovation, passion and excellence. It simply wasn’t enough to tell them about clear productivity improvements, nor how these made them more competitive. This led me into a deeper investigation of the anxiety behind people’s resistance to change.
Overcoming our learning anxiety
If ever there is to be an increase in momentum towards a concept of better ways of working, people within organisations need to increase their capacity to learn. It turns out that building a culture of learning within organisations is one of the best ways of reducing the anxiety associated with change. But achieving such a culture is no easy task.
Ed Schein, Professor Emeritus at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, talks of the natural anxiety associated with any learning. In order to lessen that anxiety, we have to accept our own limitations and deal with the consequence that we might fail to achieve a requisite level of competence, or simply make a fool of ourselves. We know, logically, it’s not possible to learn anything without making mistakes; if we could do the thing already, we’d have nothing to learn.
Schein maintains that playing against this ‘anxiety of learning’ is an ‘anxiety of survival’. Learning only really occurs, he suggests, when the anxiety of survival is higher than the anxiety of learning. So, for example, if your boss tells you you’ll be fired unless you figure out how to properly use the new performance management system, you’ll probably learn how to use it; anxiety around surviving in the job trumps the anxiety about how to use the new performance management system. Put a little more humorously, when I asked one participant of a workshop I was running why he was attending the session, he replied, ‘What interests my boss, fascinates me!’
In the case of our previously mentioned project director, clearly there was anxiety that the youngsters, brought up in a digital world, would mock him for being so ineffective—or even incompetent—with the new technology. They had already laughed at the fact that he got his secretary to print out his emails, and that he crafted his grammatically perfect responses with a fountain pen in well-polished cursive writing.
But his resistance to the new technology was no laughing matter. He could not avoid the change. The company simply had to exploit the innovation in productivity that the computer modelling enabled. To use an analogy he would have readily accepted—rejecting the innovation would be like insisting on retaining the pick and shovel even after the bulldozer had been invented.
The commercial imperative of survival sat on the other side of the learning anxiety scale. If he was not open to a profound transformation through the adoption of the new technology, either he or the firm would go the way of the dinosaur. And although it took a couple of years, he escaped into retirement as the company was swallowed in a giant merger, stripped of its ability to master its own destiny.
A more humane (and therefore more effective) alternative to ratcheting up the anxiety of survival to force learning within an organisation is to decrease the anxiety of learning. That is, to create the conditions in which learning is fun, attractive and a rewarding source of personal, team and business growth.
Many approaches can foster such an environment, but perhaps the most important is to build a culture that understands the maxim ‘fail often to succeed sooner’ and which encourages people to confess their ignorance without shame.
In later posts, we’ll explore more how culture—and the language we use to make meaning—affects your organisation’s ability to successfully enter future after future.
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