Home > Change Management, IT Management, Leadership, Management, Unstructured thoughts > Cultural challenges and challenging cultures

Cultural challenges and challenging cultures

Trying to catch up with some blogging but back on the road again traveling and trying to manage “day-by-day” because sometimes, that’s all you’ve got. So what then?

“There are three constants in life… change, choice and principles.” – Stephen Covey

This came up in one of my Brainy Quotes RSS feed and I really liked it – and very timely as well. I was catching up with a colleague who was in between roles and looking to move from the Program/Project role into traditional IT. I remember being a bit startled by that because I was trying to go the other direction but also because I find that IT in Asia is a miserable slog. Not what I’m used to and not what I’m willing to accept despite the feeling that it is what it is … for a long while.

As we work through or struggle with unpredictable and difficult changes, unclear choices, wide open opportunities, what do we do? Sometimes we run afoul of paralysis by analysis and end up just standing stuck and not able to move forward to the next steps. Sometimes it’s just because one can’t come to grips with the unpleasantness ahead. And this quote from Covey I think is a great breakthrough.

Change is going to happen so let’s not spend too much time with it. So what choices do we have then to manage it – emotionally, professionally, psychologically, personally, whatever? I think we can skip then to the last one admonition – one’s principles. Let that be the foundation, the guiding light, to help with the choices and the changes. Working backwards, I think we ought to know what we stand for, what our passions are, what our strengths and weaknesses are and let that gently guide us or at least help us avoid making the wrong decisions.

This leads to personal success:

“Be who you are and be that well.” – Saint Francis de Sales

And this leads to a missive on managing IT in Asia. Leadership requires we tackle the toughest issues that have a direct impact on our ability to achieve success. Besides the organizational cultures we deal with, there are cultural ones that embed itself into organizational cultures and people behaviors/actions. While I don’t want to suggest that cultures cannot change, it’s extremely difficult and requires amazing toughness, perseverance, and courage to challenge it.

As managers we need to ensure that the processes, behaviors which incorporate so much cultural baggage are tailored to respect it. Yet, this isn’t sufficient, because, business change (especially now!) hence, people and their behaviors must also change which means that processes must change along with it. And this is the chicken/egg conundrum…

Defining insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. (Albert Einstein attrib)

How to get people whose cultural values put stability, command-and-control/authority to do things differently? As James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner put it in their classic book, The Leadership Challenge: “The art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations” is what leadership is about. Moving the “immovable” object takes serious sweat, tears and stick-the-neck-out-first actions.

And therein is the hard lesson – how do you make the horse drink the @*!&^*(@% water???

The water I want people to taste are:
1. Have some self-direction – don’t ask someone for where you should be going.
2. Personal initiative – don’t sit on your ass waiting for the cattle prod. Go, get up and fix a problem and be useful to someone.
3. Independent minded critical thinking – you were born with a brain, please freaking use it or give it to someone else.
4. I have the answers and am part of the solution – yes, you can actually make a difference no matter what level you’re at, what title you have (or not)…
5. The boss doesn’t always have the answers. And if s/he does, it’s not his/her job to get it done – it’s yours. Earn your pay check or else someone else will.
6. One day it won’t be so hard to fire people here….There goes your “iron rice bowl”.
7. I want to hear “can-do” this, “shall-do” that and simply get it done. I don’t want to keep hearing excuses and expect failures.
8. It’s NOT OK to be ignorant. You have GOOGLE now and I didn’t…so what’s your excuse hm?
9. Working hard is great but working smarter is better and easier. It’s the best guarantee of career longevity in the long run.
10. It’s really ok not to know the answer and be wrong and make mistakes. Because if you already were great, perfect and knew it all, I’d be happily working for you instead.

For IT especially, it is so dynamic and challenging, people must by nature be mentally agile, emotionally stable, mentally strong to handle all that’s thrown IT’s way. Speed of change vs immovable cultural object.

So then…. Why?

  1. August 28, 2009 at 12:41 AM

    This is a great post and the quotes from Covey and others are spot on.

    You bring up an interesting topic regarding changing culture. It is not easy, as you stated, but it is possible. I had the opportunity to participate in a significant culture change in an organization. When we (the senior leadership) started down the road of changing the culture, we knew it would take time and perseverance, but we figured we could achieve it in about 2 years. Wrong!!! It took us almost 4 years before we could actually “feel” the difference in the organization. It required constant reinforcing actions on our part, significant changes in ways of thinking on the part of the employees, and more than a few employee replacements to finally reach that point. But the changes were tangible and allowed the organization to move on to bigger and better things.

    Just don’t underestimate the time required for this!


  2. August 29, 2009 at 10:51 AM

    Thanks Don for sharing.

    I’m glad to know your experience in this took that long because I was wondering it a bit myself. Having been part of change for what seems like eons, the time for change can’t be estimated. Not only that, but the need to have stability and consistency at the top is almost paramount as well.

    IMO, cultural/organizational change that can be sustained is started, set, sustained, secured at the top. That’s not to say that folks at the bottom can’t be a part of it and push things along, but it needs very much that strong leadership to mold it and shape it.

    It’s a tough road.


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