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  • Writer's pictureSeema Sutradhar

Why is culture change so difficult?


Culture put in simple terms is the way of doing things in reality - the untold norms, practices, rules and regulations that people in the organisation follow. It is not something that is controlled by a switch, a thermostat, an order issued by management or a replaceable part in a machine. It is like the air that we breathe. Can you change the quality of the air in a city by any quick fix? NO. How do we fix it, if we have to? How can you change the culture in an organisation, if you have to? But why do we have to change the culture now? If it is working well, just let it be. The problem statement needs to be clear first.

So far what we have been doing actually was focusing on business as usual. The aim was primarily on operations while improving efficiency and optimising cost to make sure we achieved our targets. We knew well what was our business model and fairly well how we were going to achieve goals. People in the organisation followed what they were instructed and focused on synchronisation mainly. Also, there has been a group responsible for research and development focusing on product innovation most commonly. So innovation if anything was happening, was the job of this group. There were operational improvements and other cost-effective measures taken by many other departments, but we cannot call them as innovations. Although people were given instructions and they were expected to execute them - the prime focus was on compliance, synchronisation. Everybody was needed to know how one contributed to the big job at hand and diligently focused on doing his or her piece with a team spirit. This type of work and economy was part of the industrial economy.

Now when we have moved to the digital economy where digital is the strategy we recognise that we are at a time when everything in our lives has changed and are further changing, This is due to the adoption of technology in an unprecedented manner that we have seen so far. So what is that organisations have to change in this tsunami caused by technology? I would say organisations would have to change in everything that they have been doing so far. Technology has brought in immense possibilities, artificial intelligence or machine learning can be adopted all across. It is not a choice; it is imperative. Those who will adopt the tool quickly and appropriately to do things better will ride the wave of this change in the fourth industrial revolution. For this to happen, we need to bring innovation in the entire system. The word Innovation has become a buzz word now and is losing its meaning. But the need is real innovation indeed, which means a major change in everything that we do in the organisation. As a result, the jobs that we see today will change enormously.

So far the way we have been working in large organisations have produced outcomes that were known to us primarily. We also knew how to do them. We were doing very little on innovating services or products. Now when this game has changed where we do not know what to do and how to do, then how do we play it? Thus the game needs new norms, new rules that people will follow on their own and it will bring new outcomes. To have these untold norms, practices, rules and regulations different from the past we basically need a new culture.

To understand exactly how the new culture should look like, let us first understand what innovation is and how innovation happens. I believe some of you would have already pondered how innovation happens? You can instruct a child, playing with Lego blocks to build a square with three pieces on each side. The child will be happy to build as it is pretty easy and precisely defined what to do. If you say the child to build something that is useful and leave it to be that abstract, will the child be quick to produce it? NO. The child will need to think first what is useful, will need to find answers to many questions that he will discover as he will go on this journey. He will go forward and come back or go in circles or go in a spaghetti mode before actually getting to a clear path. All these will happen through his ability to imagine new things because what he is trying to create does not exist yet. With his ideas and trials to create that thing, he will be able to produce it finally. This will happen only if the child is interested in doing so, is able to focus and enjoy the whole thing, doesn’t get frustrated and gives up when his trials fail. Such an output cannot be expected to happen by mere instruction and without child’s interest.

Innovation at the workplace in service or product or merely anything in the whole system is no different. It is the people who will actually bring about the innovative outcomes. A child or an adult both work exactly the same way when it comes to creativity and innovation. Recently I saw a beautiful idea from Manu Prakash, a professor at Stanford University who has invented a malaria testing kit that cost less than a dollar. A great innovation but my point here is not about the greatness of this innovation but in the environment that enables innovation like this. It may not always be true, but you may agree, new ideas and innovative things happen in college labs and universities mostly. Why they can’t happen at workplace although they are the same people who move out of college and join organisations? You may agree people stop thinking the way they did at college when they enter the workforce. The freedom to think and do anything probably gets subdued at the workplace. Maybe it happens because people start to think themselves as part of a bigger system and they think they need to fit and comply with other things all around them. Nothing wrong in compliance, well most required to accomplish a big task where multiple people have a job to do. It is a must, and ability to comply is well regarded in organisations.

However, the game changes when people have to think afresh and create something new of value in the workplace. They will need to question what they have been doing and come up with new ideas to innovate their work, imagine possibilities those are obvious and those that may not be obvious at all. This ability to imagine and have ideas is not a quality that only a select few possess. Imagination is the characteristics that differentiate humans from all other species and of course machines which have no imaginative power. To create new, to bring something to our senses that did not exist previously is human’s forte. Humans can’t compete with machines, but humans can leverage machines to create new jobs. Organisation culture has to be such that everyone is working towards creating jobs for tomorrow, transforming current jobs in such a way that he or she deliver higher value items while the repetitive work is handed over to machines. For this to happen, people have to take responsibility to learn new skills, adopt diverse mediums to learn, design new jobs, become more entrepreneurial. They will be adopting technology in the most innovative ways to enhance or create something of value. This will define the work for the future, and it is we who will have to be part of this definition. The focus should be on purpose the bigger thing that we will be building. Machines are enabling us with enormous power and possibilities to change our business, our societies, our planet and thus our lives as a whole.

Hence to create an environment, where people engage in innovation, the default ways of doing things, those untold norms, practices, rules and regulations have to be now different from the past. Creating such a culture will need participation from everyone. The air quality in a city cannot change unless each and everyone participates in the ways one can contribute towards it. Culture will change when leaders validate the new practices. To allow new to emerge they help to create space in daily routine, let people think and come up with new ideas, encourage forming resonating alliances, allow experimentation and accept failures. Let new rituals be practised that promote habits needed for the new culture. Culture thus cannot change easily and quickly with a switch but needs constant care and nurturing by leaders for it to flourish.

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