Disruption is the new normal.
In my role here at Phase2, I hear about it all the time, from my teams and clients alike. And this disruption doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon, especially in technology - which impacts nearly every organization.
In fact, the pace of disruption is only likely to increase. If you look at smartphone adoption, you’ll see it took six years to go from 17 to 75 percent market penetration in the US. It will take voice-activated smart speakers only three. And that is just one very small pixel on a very large screen.
But humans do not like change. There is everything from feet dragging to full-blown panic when change is upon us. The reality is resisting change is not going to stop it from happening. So we have two choices, we can passively allow change to happen to us, which is disempowering, or we can choose change consciously.
You can probably guess which one I recommend. So the question is, what do we need to thrive in this age of disruption? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Culture is the key to surviving the age of disruption/opportunity
First of all, before we go any further, we need to undergo a very important mind-shift. Yes, the pace at which we must change our processes and technology is exhausting, but there are things we can do to mitigate that exhaustion (more on that in it a bit). And while it’s true that we don’t know exactly what the future looks like, we do know that there is a wealth of opportunity in it. So we need to reframe our minds to see this age of disruption, as an age of opportunity.
If we want to innovate, if we want to succeed, we need to figure out how to not just get used to the sand shifting beneath our feet, but to figure out how to thrive within this environment. We need to be able to say “Oh look the sands are shifting again,” instead of letting it freak us out.
And here’s the little secret - we can’t do that alone. We can’t do that sitting behind our laptops, priding ourselves on being the smartest ones in the room. We human beings don’t exist in isolation. And our experiences don’t take place in isolation. We exist in relationship to each other.
The sand is shifting beneath all of our feet -- ours, our bosses’, our colleagues’, our clients, our competitors. Thriving in this environment is contingent on our ability to show up - together. Which is exactly what culture is - how we show up together.
Culture Is More Important Than Strategy
Peter Drucker, an Austrian-American educator said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” and I think it is one of the most accurate quotes I’ve come across. If we want to successfully implement a strategy, especially one when there is so much uncertainty, then we have to commit to constructing a culture that builds and supports the type of person who is capable of adapting and enduring change. Strategy and skills development cannot do it alone.
Don’t get me wrong, strategy drives focus and direction, but culture is the habitat in which a company’s strategy lives or dies. Yes, strategy is about intent and ingenuity, but culture determines and measures desire, engagement and execution. While strategy lays down the rules for playing the game, culture fuels us to actually play hard and succeed in the game.
It can be hard to trust the importance of culture, especially for those of us in the tech field, where it feels like reason and logic and analysis are king. If we get the facts right, if we write the best code, if we’re the smartest ones, then we win, right? We get an A? A gold star?
The one with the best code doesn’t win the client if they can’t build that relationship. The programmer who’s smartest doesn’t necessarily succeed if they come across as arrogant, uncooperative, or inflexible.
For many of us, it’s a hard message to hear. You may be thinking, “Wait, we’re smart, we’re good at the technical side of our work - whether it’s coding or marketing or finance - and now all of a sudden we have to win a popularity contest, too?”
But what I am talking about has nothing to do with a popularity contest, and instead has everything to do with building an authentic connection with everyone we work with internally inside of our companies, and externally with clients and customers.
How do you build the connections that create an awesome culture?
Below are the tactics we are implementing at Phase2 so that we can create the type of culture that grows incredible talent who can ride the seas of change, while also creating an exceptional experience for our clients and our own people.
Foster Trust. Trust is foundational. Without it, you can’t move forward with anything. You don’t need me to tell you that we are all flawed, and no one is perfect. When we bring our flawed humanness to work, we will inevitably make mistakes. And in order to truly innovate you need a diverse set of perspectives and cultures and an environment where people know they can bring their true selves to work and take risks (which is inherently part of creativity and innovation).
Listen. There is a big difference between active listening and listening to respond. Practice active listening. Being present, authentically being interested in what is being said and figuring out how to be if you aren’t. Listening is so important to an organization because when you are listening to someone and they feel heard, it’s such a gift. And when people feel heard, it has a huge impact on morale and helps foster trust (see above) all of which creates an environment where people want to make contributions.
Cultivate Leadership. Your leaders are the ones who will help scale and build your organization. When choosing and promoting leaders it’s vital to focus on those who can carry the cultural message and vision. Leaders create the cultural context for others to step into.
Mentorship. This can be formal or informal but it's critical that organizations have their most senior people supporting and nurturing the less experienced. Mentorship is especially important in supporting diversity in organizations particularly in specialized and difficult to learn skill areas.
Professional Development. At Phase2, our program is being revamped with an eye out toward creating an exceptional experience for our customers. We’ve layered ours into 3 tiers. Tier 1 - What everyone in the organizations needs to know. This is a wide spectrum of values and vision to how to file and create a ticket. Tier 2 - These are career specific so front-end developers will likely have a different track then the strategist who will largely focus on soft skills development. We have also placed management training into tier 2. Tier 3 - Leadership training.
- Ask how you are doing. Culture must be monitored to understand the health and engagement of the individuals and organization. Feedback and surveying is a powerful tool to measure progress on things that are little squishy like culture. Generally, this is one of the hardest things to implement because of this thing we are all very familiar with called - the ego. The development of awesome culture requires honesty and often our ego cannot take it. We get defensive. But getting defensive will not help us reach our goal of improving our culture, so there is no space for large egos. We need to condition ourselves to listen openly and to be aware of what kind of experience we are creating for other people including our customers, our co-workers, our bosses, etc.
- $$$, Recognition and Appreciation. When an organization shows a financial investment in supporting its team members it can have a very powerful impact on the culture. And I am not just talking about money, although merit increases and bonuses are an important part of showing appreciation for hard work. Even when the financial health of an organization isn’t booming, there are a number of ways to recognize talent. Everything from offering flexible work schedules, to company awards (here we have something called the P2-eys where we recognize individuals that embody our core values), to shout-outs in the company newsletter, all can make a big impact without costing a lot. Tactics like this communicate appreciation for employees, especially during times when a company is unable to offer substantial merit increases. But, it is important to remember that companies also like to be recognized as well for what they do, so if you are just taking the recognition but not returning it to those around you, it does not bode well. Gratuity can and should be expressed to leadership when a company does something that you appreciate.
Building a Great Culture Takes Time
None of this is easy. If anyone says it is, they are lying (see note about ego above). Building great culture is a marathon. It’s not a sprint.
If you are interested in learning more about the importance of culture, you check out my DrupalCon Nashville talk, Why Building Awesome Culture is Essential, Not Just a Nice-to-Have.