Diagnosing Culture – discovering implicit messages and ‘hidden’ contracts

By May 13, 2020July 8th, 2020Articles

Discovering implicit messages and ‘hidden’ contracts

Culture change is elusive, only 20% are successful. That’s because leaders are shining the light in the wrong place. They’re looking to explicit values and behaviours and missing the hidden contracts and implicit messages which really drive culture and keep it stuck.

Culture is an adaptive challenge



Recently the CEO of a global retail company engaged me to work with her and the leadership team to assist them with their digital transformation. Their key competitor had built their online platform 3 years before, closed their branches and were way ahead of the game; now they were losing sales and their margin was being eroded. They had commissioned a provider to develop their online platform 18 months earlier, but they understood now that this was not just about technology.

They needed to fundamentally change the operating model and culture of the company and they had wasted time. It wasn’t just a technical problem, it was an adaptive challenge – mindsets and behaviours had to be changed, and a radical shift in how their organisation system functioned was required, if they were going to survive this disruption and thrive.



A burning platform, vision and clear direction isn’t always enough

To implement their redesigned operating model, each subsystem in the new organisational ecosystem identified their adaptive challenges and ‘growth edges’, to ensure they were able to take up their new roles most effectively. The marketing function (subsystem) for example needed to shift into a more strategic role and give up some of the more tactical work they were doing. They had agreed that with the CEO a while back actually, but this was easier said than done. The CEO was frustrated. She had told them what she had expected and put it in their new KPI’s. They had run a ‘stop, start, continue’ process (we all know that drill) and the path forward was clear. They knew what they had to change, but nothing had changed. So, what was the problem?

All behaviour is circular (not linear)



As is good practice with an adaptive challenge they now got up on the balcony to ‘see the system’. From the balcony they observed all the actions and routines they were still doing that they had previously said they should stop. For one, they were spending time addressing queries which weren’t theirs’ to address. In fact, they were spending 20% of their time a month on this. Most of these queries should have been addressed by other parts of the system or through their new online and digital tools and yet people were still coming to them, even though they knew they shouldn’t! They just weren’t listening!

Marketing were frustrated – “we need to put out another round of comms and make it a directive now”. But of course, that was not going to solve the problem because – it was a solution based on the wrong assumption. The problem wasn’t with their explicit comms or with others being non-compliant, the problem lay equally with the marketing subsystem itself, with their implicit silent messaging.

Uncovering the ‘hidden’ implicit feedback loops which keep systems stuck

When people approached them, Marketing still responded positively and ‘helped’ them. They didn’t redirect, or say no they didn’t put a boundary in place. Every member of the marketing team was doing this as if they had an unspoken agreement between the six of them, to not let each other or the system down. If one stopped, he would be out of synch with the rest. No one wanted to be the ‘baddie’, so, they all continued to help.



Whilst explicitly they had agreed that it’s not their organisational role to answer these queries any longer, and had ‘clearly’ communicated this, implicitly, they were giving a contradictory message. By providing the information when they were asked, they were giving their peers positive reinforcing feedback and messaging them – ‘its ok’ to continue.



Marketing now realised that with good intent they had a role in keeping the system stuck in this perfectly co-created circular feedback loop. In taking up the role of ‘the helpful ones’ they were also taking up the role of ‘non-change agents’ too, helping the system not change whilst paradoxically agreeing the system had to change. Marketing’s role was reinforced by others in the system too, as they were ‘rewarded’ and acknowledged for this role, which in turn became their positive reinforcing feedback. The system defined that role for them, and they took it up. They were locked into this closed neural loop, it was easy. They were all committed to continue being ‘the nice guys’, ‘the helpers’ and not upsetting their peers – that’s what living the value of collaboration looks like, no?

They all had a ‘hidden’ systemic agreement to not change

Now as they became aware of this pattern, and it became ‘object’ to them, they realised maybe what they were doing wasn’t helpful at all. Maybe with the best intention to be helpful they were paradoxically being unhelpful – depriving others in the system either of the information they should know or of the role they should be playing. This was not with bad intention – actually the opposite! It was with good intention to live their values – and be collaborative and useful. However, in trying to be helpful, they understood they were actually being unhelpful. The perfect paradox! In trying to be helpful, they were not taking up the strategic role the business needed them to play at this very critical time and instead were busy doing what others were supposed to do.

Change the role, change the pattern, change the culture

This new information made all the difference! Now, bringing a systemic not just behavioural lens to the challenge, they understood that it wasn’t enough to define the behaviour change. They had to ‘see the system’ – the pattern of inter-relatedness in the whole and how they were all co-creating the outcome they were getting. Once they could see the role they had, in keeping this pattern going, they were no longer ‘subject’ to it. They could now choose to, and needed, to change it.



As we did this work more and more of these implicit messages, ‘systemic contracts’ and patterns became visible across all the subsystems. The leadership team now understood that, if they were going to change their culture and become a digital company, these patterns had to change. They couldn’t leave them invisible and untouched. Every subsystem in the ecosystem had to redefine their role and how they related to other subsystems both internally and in the market. This was now their change leadership imperative!

Within, a few months the culture change began to take hold, people were less stressed, relationships improved, their margin erosion stabilised, and the business was turning around…

We are used to paying attention to individual and group behaviour, not individual and subsystem roles and patterns of relatedness, but once we learn to see these roles and patterns and change them, we can bring about change quite rapidly.

It’s time to rethink culture and how we understand organisations. Move off the fast thinking, let go of the old myths.

To change culture we’ve got to first diagnose the system, the complex set of interrelatedness between the parts.

We have to learn to do this rapidly, to open this neural pathway and build this muscle fast!

Do you agree?