Culture change: changing behaviors to change thinking

Source: MIT Solan Management Review — Winter 2010

A few weeks ago, I had an incredibly generative conversation with Jabe Bloom. One of the hallmarks of a good conversation is that it leaves me with a long list of threads or breadcrumbs that I can explore and dive deeper into after it’s over. 

One of those threads from my conversation with Jabe was John Shook’s work around culture change: 

How to change a culture: Lessons from NUMMI

This short article is well worth a full read buy the key idea is illustrated in the diagrams above and this salient quote: 

The typical Western approach to organizational change is to start by trying to get everyone to think the right way. This causes their values and attitudes to change, which, in turn, leads them naturally to start doing the right things. 

What my NUMMI experience taught me that was so powerful was that the way to change culture is not to first change how people think, but instead to start by changing how people behave — what they do. Those of us trying to change our organizations’ culture need to define the things we want to do, the way we want to behave and want each other to behave, to provide training and then to do what is necessary to reinforce those behaviors. The culture will change as a result. 

Shook’s insight aligns with my personal experience and aligns with other behavior change models that I’ve covered here. With an important caveat. I’d argue that behavior and mindsets (thinking) are tethered together with a rubber band. Change behavior by making changes to the external environment — and mindset changes will follow. BUT make too big of a change, too quickly, and the rubber band will snap, and the new behavior will be rejected. Another good metaphor that we can use here is that of a pressure cooker — the dish won’t cook without (external) heat, but crank up the heat/pressure too quickly, and the whole thing will blow up. Mastery of change requires the ability to sense the sustainable pace of change that won’t cause things to blow up. 

Another challenge I raised was around the “Agile Theater” phenomena — where teams are going though the motions of Agile or Scrum (stand-ups, estimations, etc.) but are not unlocking any of the value. 

Jabe reminded me of the Japanese martial arts concept of shuhari:

  • shu (守) “protect”, “obey” — traditional wisdom — learning fundamentals, techniques, heuristics, proverbs.
  • ha (破) “detach”, “digress” — breaking with tradition — detachment from the illusions of self.
  • ri (離) “leave”, “separate” — transcendence — there are no techniques or proverbs, all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone without clinging to forms; transcending the physical.

Teams performing “Agile Theater” are in the “shu” step of mastery, which is a necessary step on the path towards “ha” and “ri”. 

Culture change: changing behaviors to change thinking

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