When a culture deteriorates, significant problems can arise seemingly out of nowhere. This describes the situation as it stood at one of my past workplaces. The workers were unhappy with the status quo (and had been for some time), yet the management was blithely unaware. Some issues would creep into the occasional company-wide meeting, but those were never the real problems, and they would either remain unsolved, or they would get resolved yet morale wouldn’t improve (resulting in a nonplussed management).
After a while, the number and range of complaints started growing. In an attempt to address the situation, groups of employees were formed around the issues that had been identified and voted to be most significant at a recent company-wide meeting.
I volunteered to join one of the groups. Though my intention was to only participate, circumstances followed what has become a familiar pattern in my life, and I ended up at the forefront of the effort.
Wait a minute…
Let’s take a pit stop here. I bet you’re wondering what that familiar pattern is that I referenced. To put it succinctly, when a group is foggy about its purpose or next steps (especially in situations where “leader” could easily be a synonym for “scapegoat”), there is a tendency for people to look towards me for commentary, if not direction.
I divide people into one of four general categories, based on which type of means they tend to also value as an end:
- “Is there an objective logic to support it?”
- “Will it foster interpersonal or social cohesion?”
- “Does it work? Is it practical?”
- “Is it pleasing to the senses?”
I could write a book about this, but suffice it to say that I personally place the greatest value in “fact” (though I also value the other means, just as any person does). As such, when push comes to shove I am more likely than most to sacrifice feelings, function, or form in pursuit of facts–because I believe the pursuit of objective logical consistency simultaneously supports the accomplishment of the other values, as well.
This means that I am often the squeaky wheel. The outspoken individual who feels the need to offer a contrarian view. The guy who invariably sticks his neck out when others quite reasonably duck for cover or nod in subdued agreement.
Back to the topic at hand…
The process we settled on followed a familiar path, as well. Though no two projects will have the same steps, the typical contours of a research project were present in this project.
- Problem Analysis
- Strategic & Tactical Planning
- Data Collection
- Information Synthesis
- Knowledge Compression
- Solution Space
- Continuous Improvement
I scheduled time for the group to hold a free-form discussion that began with the assigned problem statement, but ended up traversing the ground of many other topics. Though the conversations seemed to wander aimlessly through many conceptual and topical landscapes, we noticed some persistent themes were developing. It seemed to us that the “problem” identified in the company-wide meeting was more of a symptom of some larger problems, which in turn were rooted in other, more fundamental issues.
Strategic & Tactical Planning
In our next meeting, we fleshed out some hypotheses, as well as a plan for arriving at evidence-based solutions (rather than what each of us thought should work, or what we believed we’d like to see). We wanted to arrive at solutions and results, not just hopeless venting or platitudes. As such, our goal was to craft a methodology for cultural cultivation that was based in science rather than art. After considering our goals and limitations (especially time investment), we landed on two primary methods of data collection:
- Online Survey
- In-depth Individual Interviews
The survey was relatively straightforward. Its purpose was to provide a simple and time-efficient method of gathering quantitative data from our busy employees. One of the group members assembled twenty Likert-scale questions, to which I gave feedback before we published it. In order to gather meaningful quantitative data from anonymized sources in such a small sample size (it was a small company), we focused on gathering feedback from those in non-management positions. Adding management’s opinions to the mix would have likely added noise to the signal. Every worker who received an invitation participated in the survey.
I then crafted a research protocol for the individual interviews designed to prompt open discussion about the company, people’s place within it, and the near and long-term future. It was of the utmost importance to get people to simply speak their mind. Asking “Do you think Hypothesis X is correct?” would contaminate the data. It would lead people and submerge other possible original thoughts. If our hypotheses were correct, they would be reflected in the responses to the non-leading questions. If not, some other truths would be revealed.
Over the next two weeks, I scheduled interviews with 3/4 of the company. I ensured that we received feedback from every team, role, and level within the company (including management).
Once the interviews had been completed, I brought the group together once again to discuss the results. Although the data was available to all of the group members, many were understandably busy with their regular work schedules. In order to facilitate discussion, I prepared high level summaries of the clearest trends in the data. It was interesting to witness the many expansions and contractions of topics throughout the meeting, and how seamlessly insights in one area would lead to discoveries in heretofore unrelated topics.
From planning and collection to synthesis, our knowledge universe had been constantly expanding. In order to convert all of our work into something manageable and actionable, we had to condense the whole into representative parts. Much like a compression algorithm, I eliminated all of the information that was redundant, unnecessary, distracting, or subsumed. Beyond that, I focused my summary on the most relevant areas within that knowledge compression, to make it even easier to handle the tremendous information download that was my report.
The result was a distillation of the data into themes, which were backed up by quantitative and qualitative data, and given context wherever possible. Due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter and the interviews, providing context was often the most difficult part.
In my report to management, I chose to focus primarily on the realities I uncovered–the situation as it stood–rather than get bogged down in discussions of possible solutions. I did this for a two reasons. First, the management had a history of using checklists as a barometer for making progress, without necessarily understanding how or whether those list items would help, and I wanted to encourage an understanding of the problem before moving on to solutions that may or may not work. Reality had to sink in a bit before moving on to the solution.
Second, any true solutions could really only be realized by further discussion between management and the rest of the company, even if this took the form of discussions carried out by representatives, of sorts. It wouldn’t be possible to simply say, “Do this and that, and your problems will be solved.”
Nonetheless, it did feel incomplete to produce a report without providing at least generalized possible solution spaces, which is what I did. Management grumbled a bit about the lack of clear action items, but that absence of immediate action did provide the space for management to consider the reality while discussions of next steps took place.
As with any project, the end is never the end. There are always more questions that arise, further action required, and amendments must be made. We ended up having a few more group meetings to hash out more management action items, carried out more discussion, and implemented some changes.
Important conversations took place that otherwise would not have. One of the issues was a perceived top-bottom divide, so the first step before anything else could be accomplished was an awareness and understanding of this perception. Management was made aware of the reality around them. They surely would have continued to have no idea if this project hadn’t happened.
Changing a culture for the better is a difficult proposition. It takes a transformation of habits and communication. It is also not simply a task to be done, but a change to be lived. Having said that, there were clear action items that were created by the workers and agreed to by the management. There were significant alterations to key procedures, and marked progress was made in the flagged topics. Most importantly, a more open dialog was established, which makes the solution of any future issues more likely.