The Interdependent Nature of Culture and Process

It may not be intuitive to link something that is perceived to be as nebulous and qualitative as company culture to a quantitative, very nuts-and-bolts concept like internal business process. Surprisingly, these two concepts are much more interdependent than what meets the eye.

Internal business process is dependent on the thoughts, beliefs, norms, and behaviors of those tasked with adhering to it. On the other hand, company culture is woven into many aspects of an organization, including its systems and processes. Companies and teams with misaligned cultures can expect to experience more deviant behavior from their employees for a host of different reasons. This can include deviation from the norms surrounding internal business processes, where employees tend to complete tasks in their own way or build their own “way of doing things” altogether. If the culture is misaligned across the organization, shared accountability suffers and can perpetuate more variance in the way people accomplish their tasks.

Also, culture and process have a direct impact on one another. MXOtech points out how efficient internal business processes can reduce the amount of time an employee spends on menial tasks and can improve their efficiency, confidence, and willingness to put forth a concerted effort. Employees are generally happier and more fulfilled when the processes in place empower them to achieve their goals. However, poor processes that are bogged down, inefficient, or overly redundant can serve to frustrate and demotivate employees. This can result in employees deviating from the established procedure to quickly accomplish their task with the least amount of resistance.

Alarmingly, research has shown that people who deviate from established norms (aka “bad apples”) tend to have a stronger negative influence on their conformist teammates than the positive influence their teammates have on the bad apples. This means that it doesn’t take many frustrated, demotivated employees disregarding internal processes to get the good ones onboard. This problem of ineffective processes contributing to a poor company culture is particularly dangerous since it’s difficult for leaders to identify outside of a concerted effort on behalf of an outside party.

If you’re overly concerned right now, it’s okay! There are ways to leverage the interconnected nature of culture and process to improve these aspects of your business. Even better, improving and aligning your culture and processes can have significant positive second and third order effects in the long run! It can result in decreased expenses, lower turnover, and higher employee retention rates. One great way to develop a plan to improve these two aspects is through the “Idealized Design” method.

Gherajedaghi and Ackoff developed the Idealized Design method to address problems holistically, systemically, and through design thinking. This method begins with the end in mind by crafting the ideal state of whatever an organization is facing (in this case, a productive process and culture dynamic). Then, the group iterates to identify which aspects of the design are feasible by carefully considering each obstruction to determine its severity. The goal is to be left with the most ideal design for the specific context in question. Then, the team works to build the system and make it a reality. In order for this process to holistically take all variables into account, leaders must assemble the right team of stakeholders.

The most important people to include when crafting any process and culture improvement are the rank and file employees who have to live with the final product. These people are important because they can help control for unseen variables that could hamper the effort to improve. These employees have an opportunity to become agents of change and to feel motivated to adhere to the improved processes and ways of working if they feel their leadership took their advice and designed a system with their best interest at heart.

It’s also important to involve those members of the company who rely on the team’s outputs in some way. For example, if we were focusing on improving process and culture for an accounting team, we would want to invite a member from the budget office, legal team, etc. to participate in the Idealized Design project. Finally, an unbiased third-party facilitator is important to guide the process to ensure internal biases and interpersonal dynamics don’t hinder the end product any more than necessary.

Once you’ve created your idealized design for improving process and culture, you can begin implementing steps to make it a reality. Ensure you’re involving the rank and file employees during implementation, keep a close eye on how team members are interacting with each other and the new system, and seek constant feedback. You’ll soon breed ownership of the new system throughout the team, a stronger in-group culture, and your employees will feel a sense of pride for having a hand in helping the organization improve their internal culture and processes. Some second and third order effects that can result from a culture improvement effort are increased retention, employee engagement, and having better talent seek to become a part of your team. The effects of improved process can be increased productivity, revenue, meeting company goals, and time efficiency.

There are so many benefits to approaching culture and process as interconnected aspects of an organization. It allows you to design improvements with both in mind, which reduces the chance for an unexpected phenomenon to derail your efforts. Improving process benefits cultural alignment and clarity. Improving your company culture by aligning around effective ways of doing things (i.e. aligning processes) can help to ensure that people are consistently behaving in ways that drive strategic performance. Pairing these aspects and designing an improvement effort for both is a great way to grow as an organization and ensure you’re improving people’s lives in the process.

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James O'Flaherty
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