Culture is a much-studied thing that remains fairly elusive to most management thinkers. We know what it is but tend to be hapless when trying to manage change to it. The word culture has a root, the Latin “cult” which means “to till the ground.” I try to think about culture as soil that is being worked. I teach a course on operational excellence culture. In the course, I use the parable of the sower to help my students with a model for evaluating culture.
In the parable, seeds are sown in four types of soils, each with its own situation. The first seeds are thrown on the edge of the field, and birds came and ate it. The second seeds are sown in the rocky edges of the field, where there was little soil. The plants sprung up quickly, but when the sun came up it scorched the plants, and they died because they had no roots. Some of the seed was sown among the thorny weeds around the edge of the field. When those plants sprung up, the weeds choked them out. In each of the first three cases, the seed never produced fruit. In the fourth case, though, some of the seed fell on the good ground and yielded a crop. “Good” in the metaphor meant that the soil was well-prepared: plowed so that the rain would easily water the roots of the plants and conditioned with fertilizer so the roots would be well fed.
Most of us don’t have any direct contact with real farming anymore, but we “get it” when it comes to the metaphor. We know that without the hard work of cultivation, we won’t reap the harvest for which we had hoped.
We know that getting the soil ready is hard work. Plowing a field, especially the way they did it in the first century was laborious. The farmer knew, though, that if he prepared, he’d reap what he’d sown. In the same manner, plowing up the ground for cultural transformation is hard work. There is the soil that is so compacted that it takes a real effort to break it up. These are the habits – the bad habits – that are caked into your existing culture. Newer fields had a bunch of rocks that had to be removed. Nothing grows on a rock per se (sure, moss grows on a rock, but what good is moss?). Removing those rocks may be like removing crazy policies that were extinct a decade ago, but were never removed. It may mean removing some of the stone-headed folks who are getting in your way, even passively.
We also know that fertilizing stinks. I live in the mountains in rural, southwestern Pennsylvania surrounded by dairy farms. When spring comes, the fields get turned, and shortly after that they get fertilized. As tempting as it is to ride with the windows down on a warm spring day, you do it with caution, never knowing when that “fresh, country air” will fill your car with that sweet aroma. Cultivating for new culture can stink. People will push back, especially if they don’t understand why you are transforming.
I ask my students to analyze the culture of the college. They identify the rocky soil, the weeds, birds. Then, I have them dream up a change they’d like to see in the culture, and they have to tell me what are the barriers (the caked soil and the rocks) and how they’d remove them. They have to tell me how they’d feed and water to condition the soil (what kinds of things would they do to help the change be nurtured and grow).
I am always impressed by these young minds, unhindered with decades of management biases, as they come up with a change management plan for cultural transformation.
What are your best ideas for culture change? What are your birds, rocks, and weeds?