Your Kanban Board for Culture/Organizational Change

All of us who are impatient and exasperated by the snail-like pace of organizational change, lament the fact that it lacks real impetus and speed because we know what fate awaits the enterprise which thinks they can survive in this competitive new world without utterly transforming their culture and mindset. The good news is that there are leaders out there who would take the wheel and deliver results if the "how" was clear.

The Agile Manifesto speaks about individuals but adds “... and interactions” simply because they are conscious that an organization is a living entity of its own comprised of a myriad of intersections inside of teams where the combined dynamic impact of all parts is different from the sum of all its parts. 

The reason we have honed in on Psychological Safety at PeopleNotTech is that it is not another fluffy concept but the underpinning lever of all work interactions so we set out to make it measurable and actionable.

“Real” teams With few exceptions, we all work in a team and it’s the output of that team that determines success. The output depends less on a collection of hard skills and experience rather than the way they function together as a group. 

This is true of anyone at any level of the organization, all the way up to the deplorably missing sense of team at the top, where leaders have stopped being a unit and have become solitary impression management technicians. 

When it comes to teams, irrespective of which authors you read, which scholars you believe and which framework you’ve been exposed to from the first research in the 70s to Lencioni’s model, the two things that are recurring in every instance as sine qua non are “purpose” and “trust”. It’s little wonder Google’s extensive research projects Aristotle and Oxygene have arrived at the same conclusion - the main predictor of the success of a team is whether or not they have a healthy level of Psychological Safety. 

None of the above has come close to the body of work Prof Dr. Amy Edmondson has created by studying Psychological Safety, analyzing its components and showing it is the cornerstone in any business endeavor and any leader worth their salt should have read her works - at a minimum “The Fearless Organisation” and “Teaming”. 

“Organizational design”, “organizational psychology”, “cultural change”, “breaking silos” and “banishing toxic workplace politics” - these are all immensely important goals that make or break success stories but before we could boil them down to pivotal levers such Psychological Safety and the need for increased Emotional Intelligence they remained nebulous and theoretic. 

Sometime over the past 3 years, at the intersection of the research quoted above and our own individual common sense, these levers transformed the dialogue from one reduced to preaching, to one that has a chance of “doing” because they can be affected be actionable hands-on goals. 

Yes, we all can agree we want culture change and no politics but the answers as to how to arrive there have to be able to dictate a radically different approach to what we value and how we see work as the health of the organization won’t improve discreetly and incrementally as a result of a few workshops and a few office posters. 

What doesn’t work

  • Doing what we’ve been doing - organizing and managing the enterprise as we have in the past with the same hierarchies, the same structures and the same job titles based on the same selection criteria.

  • Firing and hiring for change - Transforming toxic work environments is not as simple as removing toxic individuals as they could well only be toxic in certain group interactions -whether in their own team or amongst teams- but perfectly benevolent and productive in others. 

  • Theorizing or preaching - While it’s necessary and true, it is also rhetorical which is the opposite of effective so it achieves no real change.

  • Offering generic “don’t be an a-hole”-type advice - Needed as it may be, it won’t accomplish anything either as plenty of people would rather not but don’t know how to correct behaviors while caught up in the web of a sick culture.

  • Paying lip service to the “future of work” concept - Talking about a new paradigm in general, as an overall concept of ample importance and then consider it sorted with the implementation of the new cycle-to-work scheme or the new office layout. 

  • Taking someone else’s word for how to change your culture- adopting any new-fangled “framework” or “process” some expensive consultancy pushed with no introspection, critical examination or ownership.

What will work

  • Question everything in the status quo

  • Understand, beyond a shred of doubt, that fixing the people aspect is paramount

  • Ensure every last one of those in charge of reports can do empathy, intuition, and positivity

  • Create and protect the Psychological Safety of each and every team including the board

  • Show the correlation to the bottom line

  • Break it down into exact and actionable tasks

  • See to it that everyone grabs a card from the Backlog 

  • Change the narrative that focused on hard skills

  • Redefine values around humanity not numbers

  • Make everyone feel happy and valued to see them productive

Every true leader should have a board like this one and not (only) in their minds and hearts but in Trello (or Jira or an office wall!) where everyone else in the team works on these and understands this to be priority 1. You can’t mandate organizational change - you have to use your best snooker moves where it becomes the end result. The ball that will start the chain reaction has to be Psychological Safety with its extreme common sense and appeal to intrinsic human decency, and if we focus on polishing this one and sending it off on the right trajectory, the next one it will touch and set in motion will be the “permission to be human” and that one is truly the transformational propulsion that the organization needs. 

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