Is Your Culture Working the Way You Think it Is?

Long ago, I was a project manager and senior engineer for a company undergoing a Change Transformation. You know the kind, where the culture changes, along with the process. The senior managers had bought into the changes. The middle managers were muddling through, implementing the changes as best they could.

Us project managers and the technical staff, we were the ones doing the bulk of the changes. The changes weren’t as significant as an agile transformation, but they were big.

One day, the Big Bosses, the CEO and the VP Engineering spoke at an all-hands meeting. “You are empowered,” they said. No, they didn’t say it as a duet. They each said it separately. They had choreographed speeches, with great slide shows, eight by ten color glossies, and pictures. They had a vision. They just knew what the future would hold.

I managed to keep my big mouth shut.

The company was not doing well. We had too many managers for not enough engineers or contracts. If you could count, you could see that.

I was traveling back and forth to a client in the midwest. At one point, the company owed me four weeks of travel expenses. I quietly explained that no, I was not going to book any more airline travel or hotel nights until I was paid in full for my previous travel.

“I’m empowered. I can refuse to get on a plane.”

That did not go over well with anyone except my boss, who was in hysterics. He thought it was quite funny. My boss agreed I should be reimbursed before I racked up more charges.

Somehow, they did manage to reimburse me. I explained that from now on, I was not going to float the company more than a week’s worth of expenses. If they wanted me to travel, I expected to be reimbursed within a week of travel. I got my expenses in the following Monday. They could reimburse me four days later, on Friday.

“But that’s too fast for us,” explained one of the people in Accounting.

“Then I don’t have to travel every other week,” I explained. “You see, I’m empowered. I’ll travel after I get the money for the previous trip. I won’t make a new reservation until I receive all the money I spent for all my previous trips. It’s fine with me. You’ll just have to decide how important this project is. It’s okay.”

The VP came to me and tried to talk me out of it. I didn’t budge. (Imagine that!) I told him that I didn’t need to float the company money. I was empowered.

“Do you like that word?”

“Sure I do.”

“Do you feel empowered?”

“Not at all. I have no power at all, except over my actions. I have plenty of power over what I choose to do. I am exercising that power. I realized that during your dog and pony show.

“You’re not changing our culture. You’re making it more difficult for me to do my job. That’s fine. I’m explaining how I will work.”

The company didn’t get a contract it had expected. It had a layoff. Guess who got laid off? Yes, I did. It was a good thing. I got a better job for more money. And, I didn’t have to travel every other week.

Change can be great for an organization. But telling people the culture is one thing and then living up to that thing can be difficult. That’s why this month’s management myth is Myth 34: You’re Empowered Because I Say You Are.

I picked on empowerment. I could have chosen “open door.” Or “employees are our greatest asset.” (Just read that sentence. Asset???)

How you talk about culture says a lot about what the culture is. Remember, culture is how you treat people, what you reward, and what is okay to talk about.

Go read Myth 34: You’re Empowered Because I Say You Are.

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9 Comments

  1. Andy Maleh

    Great story. Glad the dog and pony show inspired you not only to demonstrate to them their hypocrisy, but also be “truly empowered” to express your authentic viewpoint, stand up to yourself, and in the process find a much better job that respects your individuality and talents.

    The last time I did something similar (except I actually quit), I got a 33% pay boost on my next job over the company’s supposedly highest salary in town, and then 3 months later got a 100% pay boost on top of that from a following business contract.

    Reply
    • Johanna Rothman

      Hi Andy, yes, their “show” did empower me. Just not the way they expected.

      Every time I lost a job, either by being laid off or looking, I got a better job for more money. Every single time. It’s a little more difficult now, but not impossible. That’s why I wrote Manage Your Job Search.

      Reply
  2. Andrew Binstead

    This is something I am wrestling with at the moment. I’m in a company who are “going agile” so I asked the head of the department “exactly how agile do you want to go?” meaning do you really want to empower your staff as they should be to make their own decisions. It was laughed off and was told “we would all have to work within the framework of what was already there”.. which is of course not working.

    If a company has been going for any length of time, can they really change their culture?

    Reply
    • Johanna Rothman

      Andrew, yes, people can change the corporate culture. It might happen from the bottom up, much to this manager’s dismay. It might happen from the top down, if a senior manager groks agile and buys into it.

      You might want to look at Jason Little’s Lean Change Management book, where he discusses a variety of change models. One of them is Kotter’s 8 steps. The first of the 8 steps is “Create Urgency” or something like that. It sounds to me as if that manager has no urgency about change, which means he doesn’t understand that agile is about cultural change.

      I like to ask the question, “What business value(s) do you expect from transitioning to agile?” instead of your question. I have a better understanding then, of how far the organization wants to go. I also learn whether I should suggest the teams limit WIP, use iterations, or whether we should start with management decision-making. Or all three.

      And, as Andy Maleh says in his comments, if they want to increase profits, I suggest they increase innovation, which they can do by increasing slack, shortening project cycles, and managing the project portfolio. And, I have a book about that 🙂 (Manage Your Project Portfolio.) That does not require an agile transition, but agile makes it easier.

      It depends on how wedded they are to their pocketbooks. Sometimes, that does create an urgency for change. Sometimes, that can create a new culture.

      This culture stuff is hard. Darn hard.

      Reply
  3. Andy Maleh

    Hi Andy, yes, their “show” did empower me. Just not the way they expected.

    Haha. That gave me a chuckle.

    Thanks for the link to “Manage Your Job Search”

    If a company has been going for any length of time, can they really change their culture?

    According to consulting experience in helping it happen at two very established companies (one of which was 26 years old at the time), I would say yes provided management is sincere and committed in wanting the change. Agility when done right is all about becoming able to respond to market changes and competition faster and more cheaply. Part of that is adapting a company’s existing processes that help its mission provided they can benefit from agility in the first place. For example, an embedded software system company that owns its space (no competition) and has very long hardware/software project cycles might not be as motivated to become agile (thus failing to go the distance if push comes to shove with an agile initiative) whereas an old business that has gone online e-commerce and has many competitors with new ones popping up every day would have to go agile or perish. Such a business would be much more motivated to walk the walk.

    My point is if you sense there are no sincere situational reasons to go agile beyond wanting to “increase profits” just for the sake of impressing executives and pleasing investors, then bolt out of the nearest exit. Agile in that situation is like putting a square peg in a round hole; it won’t work no matter the effort and any resulting failure would probably get used to scapegoat some people and lay them off.

    Reply
    • Johanna Rothman

      Andy, your notion of “sincere reasons” are congruent with my business reasons. Yup, there has to be an underlying reason, aside from “we want to make more money.”

      All well said. Thank you.

      Reply
    • Andrew Binstead

      I of course totally agree with both of you, but I start to wonder if a company wants to go agile simply because everyone says they should go agile, rather than having that sincere reason. Having that reason would make a lot more sense to me and give everyone a good reason to affect the culture. Going to take a while, but it is worth it in the end.

      Reply
  4. Tim

    A few years ago I was working on a product design for a National company that required me flying cross-country regularly. I was in a similar position, but luckily when I put my foot down the company was willing to compromise and offer monthly renumeration (I flew 3/4 times per month).

    Out of the deal I also got 25% of the projected travel expenses for the next month with the previous month’s payment, enough to mean I was never too out of pocket for my travel expenses.

    Empowerment is a dangerous thing.

    Reply
    • Johanna Rothman

      HI Tim. I love it!

      Yes, Empowerment is a wonderful, and sometimes dangerous thing. Hehehehe.

      Reply

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