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Culture vs systems: who’s the winner?

Think a new, shiny system will solve your organisation’s problems? Think again, says Dr Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Reader in Management Studies.

technologies, double exposure

Jennifer Howard-Grenville

Jennifer Howard-Grenville

Ever wondered why “the way we do things round here” so readily reasserts itself in the face of planned change? New research from Dr Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Reader in Management Studies, suggests that when newly implemented routines and culture clash, it’s often culture that wins. Her study was co-authored with Simon Pek and Stephanie Bertels of Simon Fraser University.

New routines – like any planned change – are not immune to the fact that they are used by real people, used to doing things in culturally familiar ways. “Over the last ten years we’ve tried to move away from the idea that routines within organisations are fixed programmes of actions that people follow,” explains Howard-Grenville. “It’s now recognised that people are quite flexible in their use of routines. They are constantly both following the routine and also improvising within it.” How they improvise and what they follow is to a large degree guided by organisational culture, this new research reveals.

So when it comes to implementing a new routine in an exisiting culture, what are the things companies need to be aware of?

1. Be realistic about what you wish for…and whether it fits your organisation

“Even though we know routines aren’t standard operating procedures, we still try to pretend that they are – especially when we borrow one,” says Howard-Grenville. “We think: ‘That routine would be a really nice thing to have in our organisation. It will help us fix something. It will help us do something better’. But what works in one organisation may not work in another, even in the same sector, because of their different cultures.”

Howard-Grenville and her co-authors’ recent paper examined a Canadian oil producer (referred to as ‘Oilco’ in the research) that adopted a new routine for operational compliance. “Many people talk about routines as if they could just be transferred from one organisation to another, unproblematically. They can’t. They will get shaped a specific way to reflect the culture of the adopting organisation,” says Howard-Grenville. “In the case of the oil producer, they aspired to be like their competitors, who they admired for having seemingly robust and comprehensive routines for regulatory compliance. But their own culture started to shape the conversation about how this routine would be developed and deployed. For example, they wanted to be very systematic, but as a result of their culture, they realised they were going to cut some corners.”

2. Recognise when corners are getting cut

Implementing a new routine that doesn’t fit with a culture can be hard on employees and, naturally, they will tend to stick with what is familiar. In the case of Oilco, employees being rewarded for “getting things done”; taking initiative and solving problems – rather than anticipating or preventing them – was a central aspect of the culture. But imposing a very rigid IT system to guide systematic compliance actions did not sit well with “getting things done”, so employees began to work around the routine. They were, however, savvy enough in some cases to shield their workarounds from detection.

“Culturally savvy employees would shield their workarounds by patching over them, and enabling others to get on with the rest of the routine,” explains Howard-Grenville. Other employees tried hard to complete steps of a routine that were culturally incompatible, but encountered difficulties when their work was interdependent with those who didn’t. In these cases, employees resorted to shoring up the routine by essentially going into overdrive on other steps of the routine, rather than working around it. “Shoring is very visibly holding up the wall when you know it’s crumbling behind you,” says Howard-Grenville, “as opposed to shielding, which patches over a void to prevent its detection.”

Yet shielding and shoring aren’t necessarily negative behaviours. “They’re what you make them,” says Howard-Grenville. “Sometimes, they can be bad, if they conceal or distract from essential elements of a routine, such as filling in paperwork that is necessary for regulatory compliance. But sometimes shielding and shoring provide creative responses to steps in routines that are superfluous – such as filling in paperwork just for the sake of it.”

3. Don’t fight culture – redeploy it

“Many times, when people undertake a change, there is a lot of enthusiasm and over-optimism around the things that are going to be done differently,” says Howard-Grenville. In the case of Oilco, executives saw the implementation of the routine as a vehicle to altering the culture, by making it less reactive. But this wasn’t going to happen on its own. “It’s not very inspiring to talk about what has to be given up, and it’s not very common for people to talk about change in the sense of what has to be ‘unlearned’.” But, suppressing aspects of culture are often a necessary first step.

At Oilco, stifling the tendency to “get things done” was the only way to ensure employees didn’t work around, or simply ignore, the new routine. One senior manager relied on a second element of the culture, which was a strong respect for hierarchy, dubbed by the researchers as “follow the leader.” He set a new leadership example at one production site, praising employees for good work and sanctioning sloppy work. The result was that the compliance routine was implemented more successfully than on other sites.

4. Companies are populated by humans

Yes, it sounds obvious. “But culture matters,” says Howard-Grenville. “It’s very easy to think of organisations as being more like machines – things that function in the way they are designed. But the reality is that organisations survive and thrive, in some cases, because people work around. They are not too bound by rules and routines. They have a shared sense of how we do things and they keep the system running.”

“You need the guidance and the structure that rules and routines provide, and in some settings, you absolutely need them to be followed to the letter. But in all cases, you also need to recognise that at the end of the day, it’s knowledgeable, skillful humans who are working in these settings. Managers who covet new routines need to anticipate that their employees may work around them, or put them to use in creative ways. Recognising these all-too-human tendencies is not a failure of routines. They are essential to greasing the skids of organisational life and making things actually happen.”