Sim-Sala-Bim! Culture change.

Sim-Sala-Bim! Culture change.

Mindsets and culture

Digital Transformation. Groan. This was buzzword of the year in 2020.
‘Mindsets’ is a new buzzword triggered by all of this Transformation. We must ‘Change the Mindsets’, ‘Mindsets matter’.  And ‘Culture’ (which has always been on our buzzword bingo card) has now been given a new coat of paint ‘Agile Culture’, ‘DevOps Culture’. There are many articles and advice about DevOps creating a new culture. It is almost as if we can install a new culture by simply adopting some new DevOps super-duper-continual-everything toolset that will automatically change the Culture.


Honestly. This isn’t fake news.

Trust us! Our tools will change the culture.

Just sit back, watch and enjoy the ride. All you have to do is tell the teams they are now empowered, shake your magic wand and say ‘Sim-Sala-Bim’ and a new culture will emerge from the ashes of the old one.

This is what I have seen happen in hundreds of global organizations. OK, so maybe not the magic wand, but thinking that a tool, or best practivce framework will change the culture. When this turns out to be empty promise, another new hot topic buzzword gets thrown around. One we have been trying to avoid – ‘Leadership’. We need new leadership skills, styles and behaviors. Groan! Can’t we just use the magic wand?

‘L’ stands for Leadership, ‘L’ stands for LEARNER

As the late Robert Stroud wrote in a 2017 Forrester analyst report on DevOps ‘…To unlock the promise of DevOps, CIOs must lead and support a cultural change within their technology management organization. As any leader knows, changing institutionalized behavior is the toughest of all management challenges… CIOs must engender a culture of collaboration and learning and enable their people with the right tools..’  Ah! He said tools, we get that bit. Install the tools!

We needed to Learn to Lead the Culture change. 

Here we are now in 2021 and a recent article on CIO.COM titled ‘5 myths and realities of IT culture change’ revealed that ‘CIOs say they still struggle with IT culture change, even as they recognize that a poor IT culture could hinder or even torpedo digital transformation initiatives.’ Groan. More reason to want to believe that the tools will change the culture….Are you sure we can’t just use the magic wand!?

It’s a matter of principle

To help us change this tricky culture stuff a new buzzword is wheeled out onto the playing field. ‘Principles’ sometimes labelled as ‘Values’. Or as one CIO declared ‘Our new DNA’. So the answer is, just hang up some posters with the new principles or values… then install the tools? Surely that will do it!? Right?

Let us look more closely at these principles. They may just hold the clue to unlock the culture thing. They could be the common glue that binds the SILOed ‘New way of working’ approaches together. Agile, DevOps, Lean, ITIL. They all have a set of guiding principles.  So we just need one common poster on the wall?

Making it stick!

Principles should be the binding glue that can tie SILOes and SILOed frameworks together! The frameworks, like the supporting processes, practices, rituals and tools are simply there to enable and support the desired Behaviors underpinning these Principles. Behaviors that will shape and form the fundament of a new Culture. I took a look at the principles for Agile, DevOps, Lean and ITIL4 and identified 3 key principles that they all have in common:

  • Focus on Value and customer,
  • End-to-end collaboration and flow,
  • Continual learning and improving.

We need to have end-to-end teams translate these principles into desirable, sustainable behaviors.

Principles. Not so easy as we thought

How can we get teams to explore and agree the right behaviors to underpin these principles?

One example is the use of a business simulation, an interactive, dynamic workshop in which a team of delegates (often representing end-to-end stakeholders) get together to learn to apply one of these best practice frameworks (Agile, DevOps, Lean, ITIL4) in a safe simulated environment. In one such simulation a team plays the business & IT roles in a Marslander Mission control team.  They are faced with exploding business demands, the need to deliver and maintain existing services AND transform to new ‘agile ways of working’. Not only do the team need to adopt and apply best practices, but they need to develop effective communication and collaboration skills. At the start we ask teams ‘Focus on value. As a principle what does that mean? What behaviors will we see that demonstrate this’? We record these on a flip-chart.

Example behaviors often named:

  • Business shares goals and value requirements
  • If not, then IT gathers stakeholder goals and explore ‘what is value to you?’
  • When given too much work to do IT people ask ‘which piece goes first and why? How does it contribute to value? Which piece of work will I NOT do and what is the impact on value? Who needs to be involved in the decision making and who needs to be notified’?
  • We will align our Priority mechanisms to agreed business priorities and value.
  • IT engages with business to observe and learn how services and products enable or are a barrier to value
  • We will design a governance mechanism to deal with conflicting business priorities
  • We will provide transparency (situational awareness) to enable fast, informed decision making (focusing in value).

These are just examples. The exercise itself raises discussions, dialogue and team commitments to the behaviors they agree to and the behaviors they want to see’.

So this is the way you want to work. Agreed?’ , ‘Yes’ is the answer.

However when we start the simulation game these often remain simply words on a flip-chart of behaviors. (One step further that the poster of ‘principles’ hanging in the corporate corridors).

In the simulation and the hectic of the moment these behaviors are usually ignored.
‘Who owns them?’,
‘We do’ declares the team?
‘Who was the “we” giving feedback when behaviors were not being followed?’

Teams often blame the managers for not correcting the behaviors.
But these were YOUR behaviors? These are the way YOU said YOU as a TEAM wanted to behave’?

Teams often discover that changing behaviors takes time, effort, practice, feedback. With coaching. Just like a sporting team trying to learn new moves. They discuss, agree then practice, get feedback, make small iterative improvements until they master the new moves and can perform them without coaching. On the field the team gives themselves the feedback. It would appear that we often make posters of new ‘principles’ and ‘values’ and expect the sustainable behaviors to miraculously appear. Bring me that magic wand!

A key discovery in teams is often this about their own organization:

  • Principles are often not translated into behaviors
  • We rarely have end-to-end sessions to explore these behaviors and improvement needs
  • There is little conscious practice and feedback on behaviors
  • Too little time is allocated for reflection, learning and iterative improvements
  • Teams and individuals are often not coached to help learn and embed new behaviors
  • Managers are poorly equipped in behavioral and change management skills
  • Teams have too little understanding of and insight into ‘value’ froma business perspective.

How well are you and your management teams helping to translate Principles into behaviors that stick!  Behaviors that start shaping the new culture. There are no magic wands. 

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