Skateboards and speed bumps

Roughly a year ago, I facilitated a session on designing organisational culture. One of the slides I showed suggested that there are various methods and tools that aid culture change. I gave some examples of each. So, under 'methods' I listed: Developing supportive infrastructure, changing the context to change the habits, shaping group norms through incentives, relaxing or removing 'old' rules and controls, you and other leaders and managers demonstrating 'new/desired' cultural attributes.

And under 'tools', I listed: incentives, policies, symbols, feedback, communication, education and development.

A couple of weeks ago someone emailed me the slide back asking if I'd facilitate a 'deep dive' session exploring what I'd put on it. I called him and we agreed I should cover: What are tools? What tools work? How can we use them? (A tall order in 90 minutes. Note to self: be careful what I put on PowerPoints!).

To get myself thinking about this I google imaged 'what are tools?' to see what came up. The first screen showed a lovely range of things – a construction site helmet, a questionnaire, a hammer, some instructions, a reporting dashboard, some desktop icons, a mind-map, and so on. So, that got me heading towards answering the question with 'tools are shaping devices'.

I guess I was prompted in that definition as I'm doing a FutureLearn course on the Philosophy of Technology . It's packed with questions and discussion on the role of technology plays in mediating human interaction with the environment. It seems to me that technology – at least the form discussed in the course – is one type of tool. And, as we learned, tools/technology 'shape all kinds of relations between humans and the world, and in doing so, they influence practices and the ways in which we perceive the world.'

In trying to shape organisational culture or 'manage change' we are selecting tools that we think will do that.

So, I started the session testing the premise that tools are shaping devices. To stimulate thinking we looked what tools are in use that encourage drivers to stick to the speed limits, i.e. that shape driver behaviour. There are multiple tools to do this, including speed bumps, vehicle activated electronic speed signs, driving regulations, penalties for speeding, in-car speed limiters, and so on.

This led onto the discussion of which of the tools we came up with 'work' to shape driver behaviour. We initially felt that using several tools simultaneously would get drivers adhering to the speed limit more effectively that just one being used on its own. But then I got out the Creative Whack Pack a wonderful tool for stimulating creative thinking. The first one I picked up said 'Do the unexpected'. Someone suddenly remembered some traffic calming experiments that remove several of the standard tools for restricting speed and instead allowed drivers to 'self-police'.

From this we got to a point where we felt that tools that work have to be:
a) Relevant and current. Many of the tools in use have a 'shelf life'. For example, a policy doesn't stay relevant over time. And, it appears, neither do speed bumps!
b) Simple and trusting of the user rather than over-controlling
d) Selected for the context and purpose – what works in one context may not in another.

Our discussion also led us to propose that:
a) There can be unintended consequences of any tool used. For example, speedbumps are exciting challenges to skate-boarders. And what might be intended as an enabler could become a disabler. (Sadly, I've forgotten the actual example given on this)
b) We had a fairly limited view of what a 'tool' is and we should extend our thinking on them. For example, person suggested that the way classrooms are laid out constitutes a tool
c) We don't know what tool will work till we try it out

With these ideas to hand we went on to look at what tools we could use to encourage building strong communities, and failing fast and learning. (Two statements of 9 from a wall chart about the culture we want to foster). I'd brought some paper-based tools along as examples to try out.

Build strong communities. The Scottish Community Development Centre has a set of good-practice principles and guidance notes designed to support and inform the process of community engagement. Back this up with the Community Engagement Toolkit that we also looked at, and you have some tools to start building a strong community with.

Fail fast and learn. We had a go at taking Fail Forward's comprehensive Intelligent Failure Assessment. In this case the discussion revolved less around 'fail' – not a word we warmed to – and more around 'learn' and we got some useful and usable ideas to immediately put into practice.

Further, towards the end of the discussion we came to a view that failing fast and learning could also be an integral element of building a strong community.

And so, a final idea was born – the group in the room could select and use a wide range of tools to design and build their own strong community that has all the hallmarks of the changed culture they are working to develop in their 'day jobs'.

What's your view on tools for culture design? Let me know.