I've been reading up a lot lately on transformations and culture for a number of reasons. One, every company with more than 50 people all seem to be doing some kind of transformations in some capacity and two, none of them seem to be successful - at least not like the executive group is being told. There's a cry for better company culture with inspirational words on the walls, in corporate emails and speeches. I've seen this up close and been involved in a few of them now, as well as handling some of the other symptoms that go along with it (hiring as I wrote about recently).

Something clicked today and I think an idea is finally coming together from a bunch of sources. All of which I'll cite at the end (with links!) and I'll try to bring all these together into what I've been seeing as well as examples -- these might be instances of hindsight bias, reference class forecasting or confirmation bias -- those I’ll leave to you to decide. Most of this will come with a level of snarkiness and a high dose of strong opinion and no calls to action. Each company and culture is different and I would love to help you with those, but in this context I see blanket recommendations as reckless and borderline unethical (I warned you about strong opinions, and that didn’t take long!).

Culture rot, transformational failures, product commoditization, code decay, all of it -- are not an accident - it's all from neglect of events way before it becomes obvious. So let's get on with it.

Transformations are seen as a threat
a fad
... or both.

And they’re not wrong. Trying something new? No thanks, that’s too hard and why would I change when my way works? It's worse when it comes to a group ...who have been taught how to take orders.

reference 1, 4, 6 and 7

It's not just a threat to our working lives, but to livelihood. Imagine this for a moment: you've lived in a home for 3 years. When you come home, all the furniture in your house has been rearranged. All of it. The bedroom is now in the kitchen, the dining room table is in the garage and the car is parked in the living room. Where's the TV is anyone's guess, but the logistics are all different. As a response to the shock and confusion, you decide to order pizza.

This is just for the furniture, now imagine everything inside is rearranged except the outside shell of the house. There's also a couple new people running around that you've never seen before, new pictures are up, new paint on the walls and things are happening. This is what transformations do to an organization's people. It's seen as yet another silly thing to be ignored ...until it isn't.

Worse, it's seen as a threat to an employee's well being.

Think about it for a minute. Manager says change is coming, new things are happening, we must move in this direction and the employee doesn't see how they fit, where they fit, and their skills are overnight obsolete at best. This causes an incredible level of stress and reflects on them losing their job and their livelihood outside of the office -- no wonder there's resistance, both passive and active, in so many forms. To them, they are in a fight for their life. They were comfortable, they understood the rules, and those are gone -- and they're in a system that brings out flaws and shortcomings for all to see.

Now it's about sustaining, possibly going back to the good old days and survival. Why? It's seen as an event, a single point in time for a new thing to be tried out, hailed as a success and quietly moved away from. It has an end date. This isn't what transformations are about and I think a big reason why many of them ultimately fail and the old ways of working return silently but swiftly. Survivorship is a horrible thing to waste.

Managers are being lied to and don't want bad news… everything is great!

It's on the walls, in the halls - take risks, we're behind you! Just make sure it's on my desk by 5 today ...and why did it take so long?!

reference 2, 3, 6, 7 and 11

The employees don't believe it and probably managers too but it's in every email, posting on the walls ...

  • Do the right thing!
  • We're behind you!
  • The worst thing you can do is nothing!

There's a high chance employees have heard this before and believe exactly none of it. You have to lead by example, because this is NOT the first time they’ve heard this organizational change speech. It was probably early in their career and watched it turn into lip service and empty promises. Now, armed with experience, and since they survived it before, it’s easier to return the favors by letting you know everything is just fine, it's all going great. Worse, everything they are seeing is another warning light, a red flag, an issue they are dealing with and throwing things together that in hindsight would have saved the whole thing from disaster -- and dear manager, you will never know until that big bang occurs.

When that bang happens, the rude surprise turns into the blame game … but it didn’t “just happen”. Somewhere weeks, months, YEARS ago, way before that happened, decisions were made that allowed the bang to begin… and build up, be ignored or hidden, fester into a bigger problem, hidden again and eventually it happens. So what’s going on? How is it possible glaring problems that could tank your project, product, maybe the entire business not be brought up? There's a huge budget, all the best tools and we want them to bring us those problems... so what is it?

The military learned a long time ago that just because the training and equipment was given, it doesn’t mean it would be executed. For example, after every U.S. Civil War battle, records were kept on equipment recovered. Quite often, rifles were found to be reloaded multiple times (the most was 26 times I believe) without being fired. You cannot fire a musket with more than 1 load in it, it'll explode in your face.

Many of the soldiers were going through the motions. Nothing more.

The soldiers, in the face of war, still did not want to harm another person, even when that person was shooting at them! So they went through the motions, trying to survive it. The point? The equipment didn’t replace the inhibition to harm someone else and this includes bad news and harmful things to many managers, even if it’s just words. Look around the workplace and you’ll see plenty of examples. There’s Bob that doesn’t like bad news so don't you dare bring it up it'll make him look bad, Karen that gets really angry and upset when it isn't her way -- but hey, the reports look good, everything is fine!

Peacetime or Wartime

Which are you in? If it's transformation time, it's war time. Treat it like such and expect everyone else to.

reference 2, 4, 7 and 8

Imagine for a minute that it's back to 2012. The economy is good enough, things are humming along then boom. Within 3 months, you've lost everything. Job, house, all of it. As many people found out, taking things lightly and slowly was no longer an option. Any job that paid regularly would do - it didn't matter if it was an "odd job" or full time. Multiple jobs? Even better!

This is what it's like between "Peacetime" and "Wartime". There's a sense of urgency, almost an anxiety -- things cannot stay the same in order to keep the company alive. Bad things are coming, everyone knows it so it's time to play with scissors and cut the crap. Not only the company's livelihood is at stake, but so is everyone that’s there. Imagine the whole company goes down. Everyone will have to explain it away and deal with the fallout - alone.

Great cultures band together and change, leaning on each other's strengths and taking full advantage of it. Without that strong culture, sense of urgency and discipline, it won’t end well.

Good culture, it doesn't just show up and continue to exist.

It takes cultivating, curation and relentless attention. None of which is by accident, only with full unrelatening intent.

reference 2, 8 and 9

Earlier in my career, I watched a newly hired, “seasoned” CTO address the entire technology group and single handedly destroyed every ounce of progress ...in a 15 minute speech. Two years of training, coaching, upgrades, true work and progress ...gone in 15 minutes. After the shock wore off a bit in the following days, a director asked how bad should he expect, what was the sediment of the software group? My best guess was a 1/3 of our staff would quit in 3 months… and I wasn't even close. We lost a 1/3rd in one month, and nearly half in by the second month. I don't know the 3rd month numbers because before that ...milestone. It was such a beautiful show of incompetence of culture, it remains unmatched in my career to this day and serves me as a shining example of what not to do at every level.

What worked at a past organization doesn't work for another either - nor does a culture that is set in place continue to exist. People want a place to belong and be part of a group and ... held to high standards.

Real change and habits take way more time than you think

Changes should be small and deliberate to compound over time… and some people will fake it to appease others. And there is data to back this up

reference 2, 5, 6, 7, 10 and 12.

When a team is given a new way of working, often it’s a big bang effect. Do all these things and instantly you’ll be transformed. Surprise, it doesn’t work that way and leads to a waste of 2 years and a lot of money. It’s just too much to digest and learn all at once.

Instead of running a marathon, be a runner.

The problem with most transformations is they run a marathon, declare total victory and go back to how things were. A runner can run a marathon, but has the discipline to keep at it - but they don’t start out by running a marathon. This is the difference between a goal and an outcome, an infinite game vs one with an end date and time.

Most organizations want the quick win -- and you need those -- but they cannot compromise longer, enduring wins that will stick and compound many times over. These are harder to stay focused on when this age of distraction and instant gratification is so easy and "and everyone's doing it".

Where did I get all this from? These books and articles.

  1. Leading Change. Why transformations efforts fail
  2. You are what you do is who you are
  3. https://hbr.org/1991/05/teaching-smart-people-how-to-learn
  4. The Black Swan
  5. Atomic Habits
  6. On Killing
  7. 9 Lies About Work
  8. The Culture Code
  9. Extreme Ownership
  10. When
  11. Left of Bang
  12. The Infinite Game