We have to change our culture.

“We have to change our culture.”

It’s been muttered by every frustrated leader, in every organization, in both the public and the private sectors.

300px-enron_logo.svg_But what most of them mean is, “We have to change the way we do things around here.” At its most fundamental level, this is what the term “corporate culture” means: “the way things are done around here.”

Organizational culture is the sum of everything that makes up the modern workplace. It is the stated values of the organization. And, more importantly, it is the unstated values that have never been codified—yet which every employee fully understands.

It includes the symbols of the organization. Some are obvious, like the organization’s logo or the mission and vision statements that hang so prominently in the main lobby. Others are not so obvious to the public—parking spaces, private offices when everyone else has been moved to the new “open” floorplan, and weeklong training sessions in Palm Desert.

Culture is the conversations that take place in the boardrooms, in the hallways, in the cube farm, and in the break rooms. And it is just as much the conversations that don’t take place. The jobs-well-done, the need-to-improves, and the disciplinary actions that never happen.

It is the stories that are told, the awards that are presented, the celebrations that are canceled, the myths that are perpetuated.

The Smell of Diesel

Culture is the “smell of the place,” that feeling you get when you spend any time in an organization, no matter how large or small.

volkswagen_logoCulture defines what is OK—and what isn’t. Culture defines right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, meaningful and meaningless. Volkswagen has given the world a lesson in culture, because it takes a lot of people to create and install diesel engine software that cheats environmental tests. But they pulled it off for six years—and it wasn’t an internal leak that let the story out.

Culture is…
“the smell of the place.”

Culture can be strong or it can be weak, but it always exists. And it exists because people who work together must understand “the way things are done around here.”

Changing Culture

Anyone who gives culture a thought can understand these concepts. The hard part is accepting how resilient culture is.

Because culture defines a globally accepted template for action within the organization, by its nature it exists to resist change. This is the critical point every leader must clearly understand: there is no aspect of an organization that is more difficult to change than the culture. An organization that has never prioritized things like shared leadership or cross-functional teams, and wishes to move in that direction, must realize that it is embarking on a journey. It will require time, perseverance, and committed leadership. There will be resistance, much of it passive and well hidden, and there will be failure.

But organizational culture can be changed if the leaders go into the process with an awareness of the scope of the challenge and a plan for overcoming the inevitable obstacles.


Sewage Pumps and Leadership

If you don’t read Jim Taggart’s Changing Winds leadership blog, you really should add it to your list – he does a great job!  Yesterday I read his latest entry Work Hard, Play Hard: Leadership Lessons to Redefine Your Thinking about Michael Abrashoff, retired U.S. Naval Captain and co-founder of GLS Worldwide.  Jim’s post is a review of Michael’s book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.

As I read this post it reminded me of the time I heard Michael speak in Toronto a few years ago.  He told one story in particular that always stuck with me – and it’s about time that I shared it with someone else…

The USS Benfold

When Captain Abrashoff took command of the USS Benfold in 1997,

the ship had one of the poorest service records in the U.S. Navy.  One year later the crew of the USS Benfold achieved the highest performance ratings in the fleet – and went on to win multiple awards and achievements.

The details of this remarkable turnaround are well worth the time it takes to read the book – I highly recommend that you check it out.


Here is the story (as I remember it)…


During the first 30 days of his new command Captain Abrashoff spent most of his time exploring the ship,
and one of the lessons he learned was that he had a sewage problem.

In the lowest part of the ship, in the dark of the bilge, there are pumps that move the ship’s sewage. It seems like such a meaningless thing – sewage pumps.  This is a fighting ship of the sea, outfitted with the latest technology that the U.S. defense industry can attach to a floating vessel with the purpose of blowing other things up.

But the sewage pumps were junk.  And they were junk in all of the ships of this class.  So there was a shortage of parts to keep them running.  And – as these things always go – there was a shortage of engineers who knew how to keep them running.

Big deal – these are just sewage pumps.  They have no impact at all on the ship’s capacity to launch missiles.

However, if these pumps are not functioning, the ship is not combat ready.  No sewage pumps, no operations.

Every Day

So, Captain Abrashoff, recognizing the importance of these pumps, but more importantly, recognizing the importance of the sailors who kept them functioning properly, would make the difficult climb down into the depths of the ship to check on his staff – every day.  Let’s repeat that — every day.

industrial_pump-280x187He could have just as easily picked up the phone and checked in, or had one of the ship’s officers do it for him.  But he recognized the critical failure point that these pumps represented in his efforts to change the performance and culture of his command.

So he took the time to personally visit these sailors so that they would clearly understand how important their work was to the success of the organization.

Where Are Your Pumps?

You might lead a small group or a large organization — either way, there are some great questions in this story:

  • Do you know where your sewage pumps are?  Can you describe — right now — which functions (processes) will stop your organization in its tracks.  Which ones seem vital, but under scrutiny maybe aren’t so critical as you thought?
  • How much time do you devote to those items deemed “important” by your managers and leaders that don’t add any value to actual accomplishment?  Do you have the guts to ignore these for the good of your organization?
  • Do you hide behind paperwork and reports or do you climb down into the “bilge water”?  How often do you get out of your office and talk to the people who make your organization actually work?  Not the “junior officers” and other middle-managers, but the “coal face” workers who make real things happen?
  • How important is prestige in your organization? Does the value of the paycheque dictate the value of the individual? Does your culture acknowledge the importance of those who “do” being just as (more?) important as those who “discuss”?

What other questions or observations can we draw from this story?  I would love to know if this story resonates with others as it did for me.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 31 August 2011

Jargon Monoxide

Effective communication skills.

The Harvard Business Review says, “Effective communication is a key driver for achieving desired results on a personal or business level.”

So why is this so common:

Together, we will leverage our assets to deliver the strategic value that our stakeholders expect and deserve as we create synergistic value add via the integration of complex systems to facilitate collaboration across mission critical projects in order to best provide enhanced innovation, efficiency, productivity, retention, and engagement.

Suffocating in the Jargon Monoxide

I’ve long been a fan of Dr. Bob Sutton, author of – among many great books and articles – The No  Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss.  He recently pointed out a term that was used in one of his classes by Polly LeBarre, former editor at Fast Company:  Jargon Monoxide.

It’s one of those, “boy, I wish I had thought of that” terms.


Some highly technical fields require special terms and a unique language to provide for proper communication between the practitioners – medical terminology is the most familiar example for many of us.

But the business of management and leadership rarely requires special terminology or language, though that doesn’t seem to reduce the mind-crippling ramblings of business writers, executives, and a great many management consultants.

We “communicate” in platitudes and double-speak corporatese. Words and phrases are strung together which, to the uninitiated, appear to be completely absent in meaning – if not intentionally misleading.

Carbon Monoxide

A poisonous gas that is invisible, odourless, and tasteless, and is highly toxic to humans and animals.

It is also contributes significantly to urban pollution.

Made to Stick

Jargon Monoxide, it really grabbed me the first time I heard it, and – as I think about it – I believe it resonates really well with the principles described by the Heath brothers in Made to Stick.

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

A few of my favourite examples

  • Value add
  • White board [as a verb]
  • Synergies
  • Transitioning
  • Boiling the ocean
  • Human Capital
  • Dialogue [as a verb]

Speak Human

So why do we do it? All of us will, in spite of our best intentions, engage in some terrible business language.  But why?

I will reference and paraphrase Dr. Sutton again:  In many business environments people are recognized and rewarded for saying smart things rather than doing smart things. And, as the carousel of promotion, re-assignment, and re-organization spins faster and faster, few people are in one position long enough that they have to live with the repercussions of their decisions.

And so, we fall back on the popular phrase of the day to impress the supervisors and colleagues who will be writing up our next performance evaluation with the deep and thorough comprehension that we have developed in the face of a complex environment.

The ability of an organization to maximize achievements is not enhanced by leveraging its core competencies via the verbal and/or written modality, so, at the end of the day, the optics of the situation are not favourable in light of the key performance indicators.

Actually, people perform best when communications are clear, concise, and direct.

What are your favourite examples of Jargon Monoxide?  Let us know in the comments.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 23 December 2011