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Organisational Culture and Space

Imagine being an astronaut and not having a clue about how to get your spaceship off the ground. Or a Leader in Mission Control who doesn’t know where the spaceship needs to go, or how it’s going to get there. It’s crazy, right…. you wouldn’t get to such a critical point in an objective and not know how to start, where to go or how to get there. Yet, probably more often than it should happen, this is the very situation that Leaders can find themselves in when they are about to start an organisational culture change journey.

A famous Space Traveller once said that ‘space is the final frontier’, an environment where we are required to (boldly) ‘go where no-one had gone before’! Whilst I’m not suggesting that organisational culture change is a place where noone has ‘gone’ before, given both the significant challenges that can be faced when delivering successful culture change and the many examples of poor organisational culture that have occurred in the past (companies in banking, oil/gas and aviation sectors spring to mind), Leaders could be tempted to view it as a ‘final frontier’ – it appears to be as hazardous and difficult to ‘explore’ as space travel!

However, rather than simply using it for comparative means, I believe that applying the analogies of space and space travel to culture change can help Leaders generate a positive frame for their change journey. The objective of travelling in space to reach a new planet is akin to the journey that organisations take when they progress through their cultural maturity – leaving the planet (culture) that they are on, travelling through areas of uncertainty where there’s limited information on what can impact them and when (the journey) and having no clear view of what the new planet (new culture) will be like when they arrive. For many, it’s a daunting prospect!

Traveller

Before they start their journey into space, travellers spend a considerable amount of time in training – it can take up to 2 years for someone to become a qualified astronaut.

It’s clear that Business Leaders don’t have the time to spend 2 years in training, but I’m certain that, like space travellers, the need for increasing their skills, knowledge and competency is an essential requirement if they are to be successful in leading their journey to improved cultural maturity. After all, no-one would try to set off on a space flight if they couldn’t pilot the ship.

When I think about space travel (real or imagined), I can see some clear similarities between its major difficulties and those that Leaders can experience when tackling culture change.

To illustrate, consider one of the hardest parts of the space journey – the take-off. Escaping the pull of earth’s gravity takes a tremendous amount of sustained effort (think about those engine plumes!!); it’s a process that has significant risk and a high potential for disaster, if planning and preparation is not thorough and comprehensive (remember Space Shuttle Challenger).

There are organisational-generated ‘gravities’ that act in a similar way, requiring Leaders to expend considerable energy and manage risks in order to ‘take-off’ for their culture journey. Some examples of these ‘gravities’ that I’ve seen include a lack of time, a lack of resources, internal resistance to change and a lack of a clear view of the future; each of these have the potential for disaster, if they are not addressed properly before the change process begins.

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Black Hole
Once the journey has begun, there are many more challenges that space travellers may face before they reach their final destination. One of the most significant challenges is experiencing a Black Hole. They’re defined as a place where the force of gravity is so powerful that travelling at the speed of light is required to escape its pull. At its core, the gravity is even stronger and if you get caught by its pull, you’re sent into freefall towards its centre. In my view, the effects of a Black Hole mimic the potential impact of numerous issues that Leaders face, either prior to, or when embarking on a culture change program
  • The downward spiral that results from a culture in which workers feel that Leaders are always looking to find ‘blame’ in every situation.
  • The significant resources and effort that organisations use to find ways of managing ‘numbers’, so that performance is viewed as ‘good’ (and in doing so, usually forgetting about the real issue, i.e. the people involved).
  • The effort and energy consumed in ensuring that their ‘silo’ is protected, shown to be in the best light or retains information and/or knowledge that would be beneficial for other departments/ the business to use.

Each of these issues create their own ‘gravity’, pulling in increasing amounts of resources, time, energy and effort and reinforcing a culture that is undesired. After a while, the ‘force’ required to break away becomes too great, and the organisation risks falling into a downward spiral from which it cannot escape, making any organisational culture change programs much more difficult to get started or become successful.

So, how can we use the analogies of space travel to help Leaders tackle their organisational culture change journey. Here’s a few suggestions.

  • No space traveller attempts to fly into space without spending time in training. Whilst they may be top of their field, trainee astronauts still have a lot to learn before embarking on their first ‘mission’. The training is delivered by recognised experts (‘seasoned Explorers’), who impart a suite of new skills and knowledge in a ‘safe learning environment’. Leaders embarking on a culture change program need to adopt the same model, i.e. acquiring new skills and knowledge from seasoned Explorers before they start.
  • No journey starts without having a Flight Plan – a clear understanding of the direction, the destination and the methods that are going to be used to get there safely. Many culture change programs fail because the ‘Flight Plan’ isn’t defined or clear. Spending the required amount of time to get this right is a valuable (and necessary) investment in the overall change journey.
  • Space is a dangerous place, so travellers use a spaceship to ensure that they are protected during their journey. The spaceship is designed to be fit-for-purpose, i.e. to provide protection against significant hazards and create a safe operating environment for the journey.

 

While clearly, Leaders don’t need a physical spaceship during their culture change journey, the use of a ‘virtual’ ship that protects against hazards 3 and create a safe environment for change is very relevant.

In our world, this ‘virtual’ ship is the framework (methods, approaches, behaviours and actions) that Leaders use to effect their change; frameworks that are robust (strong enough to ‘take-off’ and able to resist regular ‘impacts’), agile and adaptable (to handle the ‘hazards’ that will be faced along the way), can communicate effectively with the team and provide/maintain visibility of their progress will give Leaders the best level of protection within a positive environment for change.

Finally, all successful missions have a strong link to their Command Centre. The support of ‘Mission Control’ is vital for space travellers throughout their journey, helping them keep on track, providing them with guidance, assisting the resolution of problems and importantly, providing the foundation for continuing missions in the future. In embarking on a cultural change program, it’s essential that Leaders introduce and embed changes that will allow them to be organisationally self-sufficient as further changes are needed. This requirement is especially important if the organisation is using external Change Agents to begin the change process.

Organisational change, like space travel, is challenging and fraught with difficulties, requiring a significant amount of work to understand these challenges and devise solutions before the journey begins. Equally, it’s heavily reliant on its Leaders being equipped with, and be able to use the necessary skills and knowledge effectively to ‘pilot’ the organisation safely through the hazardous environments that they will face on their journey of change.

Command Center

Just like space travel, Leaders wants to be able to talk about their successful missions ….. and not relive those change programs where they ‘crashed and burned at take-off’!!