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Culture of Optionality?

How do you change the culture when the existing culture is one of optionality? This question has been exercising my mind recently and I thought I would share the thinking with you.

First of all, what is a culture of optionality? You might recognise the symptoms; initiatives are brought in by the organisation, people do the training, and then choose to not use the new system, follow the new approach, adhere to the new rules. Another symptom is that the organisation decides to buy all its services from one supplier, but people chose to ignore that because they prefer another supplier. Go on the training programme to ‘up-skill’ but don’t do the pre or post work? New software? Common platform? no thanks I will use my own!

To be a culture of optionality it cant just happen once though. It needs to happen every time the organisation roles something out. In addition, when you ask people they will say ‘Yes that is what happens around here’. To become cultural, it needs to be something that everyone knows about and the majority do, even if its a negative culture.

So how do you change a culture of optionality? If the problem is that everything is optional, then trying to roll out a new initiative to change the culture, becomes optional in itself!

I have asked for thoughts from people and even gone out to the twitter-verse. One thing that interested me is that a common response was ‘Trust and empowerment is the answer’. Think about it, how much more trust and empowerment can you have if people already feel empowered to do what they want anyway?But it did give me a reminder of prevalent thinking in the westernised world, which is also a clue why cultures of optionality exist everywhere and are growing in number.

Maybe we need to understand why cultures of optionality exist to understand what needs to be done to change the culture.

For everything to be optional means there are no consequences to not doing something or reward for doing something.

So the symptoms I mentioned are at the effect end of the cause and effect equation. If management does not apply a consequence to not doing anything e.g. still getting a good appraisal rating despite not following the system/process/training or there being no objective in the appraisal system that relates to using the system/process/training or still getting a good bonus despite etc etc then management is basically saying ‘that new thing is optional’. On the other side of the coin, if there is no reward the same thing happens e.g. keeping your bonus based on sales volume when you have declared that you want to focus on margins means that people will sell volume at low margin and the same applies to bringing in company values and using new system/processes etc. If you don’t connect reward to the new initiative then management is saying ‘this new thing is optional’.

To start the change from a culture of optionality to another culture requires the step of establishing expectations, setting boundaries and aligning job descriptions, appraisal systems and reward systems to match the culture you are looking for. And if needs be your performance management systems need to manage those who still refuse to be part of the culture.

Culture means ‘the way we do things around here’ and for something to be Cultural it means ‘the way we all do things around here’.

Don’t confuse a culture of trust and empowerment (which means we trust and empower you to operate within the boundaries and follow the systems, just as much as it means we trust and empower you to use your brain to make good decisions) with a culture of optionality.

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