COVID Cultures Swift and Slow (Part II) – COVID-19’s Challenge to Our Organizational Cultures

The Tortoise and the Hare. The Fox and the Hedgehog. Our fables illuminate our preferences for speed or deliberation, focus or diffusion. This is as true for our organizations as it is for us individually. Our organizational cultures are Swift (hare and fox) or Slow (hedgehog and tortoise).

As COVID-19 changes the way we work, it challenges our organizational cultures. Last week we looked at how Thick and Thin organizational cultures are challenged by and respond to the pandemic. This week, we uncover the impediments Swift and Slow organizational cultures face and actions they might take.

Swift Cultures: Swift Cultures – hare and fox – value bountiful ideas, speed and experimentation. They cast a wide net for insight and react creatively and without hesitation. Swift Cultures live in volatile environments where they must respond quickly to fickle constituents, bored stakeholders and attention-deprived officials. They see risk in opportunity lost. In the public sector, examples include GSA’s 18F, agencies sponsoring idea and innovation labs, and fee-for-service organizations. Swift cultures can move slowly, but only when their mistakes stymie progress and they absolutely have to.

Slow Cultures: Slow Cultures – hedgehog and tortoise – value deliberation, rigorous standards, processes and empirical assessment. They live in more stable environments, but the consequences of action or inaction can be dire. They see risk in opportunity cost. Examples of Slow Cultures include regulatory agencies, oversight functions and those with legal and fiduciary responsibilities. Slow Cultures can move fast after they have found the answers they seek.

Swift Culture Challenges: Over-communicating, pushing suppliers and partners too hard and too fast, the fear they are not doing enough quickly enough, squandering opportunities by making assumptions and not thinking them through – these are the difficulties that confront Swift Cultures. A further risk: As we work from home, we engage exclusively with other team members and the team becomes more insular. We pull away from the organization’s cultural anchors, creating discontent and alienation. As Bob Sutton in IDEO’s Creative Confidence podcast, offers, “The sign that you’re going too fast … you’re confused, people are upset, and things are going wrong all over the place.”

What to do if you are in a Swift Culture?

Borrow a page from disaster response organizations. Hold morning stand-ups during crises to ensure coordination and joint action across teams and functions. Use action learning techniques to satisfy the Swift Culture’s need to correct its mistakes fast and learn to adapt. Employ after-action debriefs to focus on how to improve during the next engagement. Most importantly, communicate across teams to prevent individual teams from becoming isolated and separate. New team behaviors, if shared, can stretch the culture in a positive direction.

Slow Culture Challenges: In times of radical change, analysis paralysis bedevils Slow Cultures. Waiting to act until they have all their information frustrates constituents and staff alike. This results in missed opportunity as stakeholders demand responsiveness. From Bob Sutton in the Creative Confidence podcast, “People acknowledge the problem, use talk as a substitute for action, then the same problems appear again. … People are frustrated because things that people think should be easy are difficult to do.”

What to do if you are in a Slow Culture?

Inc.’s Corporate Culture After COVID-19, declares: “You go into the pandemic with the culture you have.” Though Slow Cultures appear ill-suited to adapt to the pandemic’s effects, once a Slow Culture decides and acts, watch out. It can use its strength in consistency, coherence and efficiency to deploy resources and satisfy external stakeholders at levels Swift Cultures will find difficult. Slow Cultures can initiate “skunk works” and cross-functional projects separate from the main organization to create and act on the changes needed. Then, they integrate them back into the culture. Slow Cultures can also rally the organization to act on what it already knows by telling stories about how it has changed successfully in the past.

Culture Is Complex

Stories fuel culture. Memes inspire behavior.

They show us how the organization is moving, shedding, adding and reimagining behaviors and values. You successfully solve a problem using teams in a way that reinforces how your organization debates and communicates. How do you tell that story? You have a disastrous decision meeting due to poor network connections. You reach out to each stakeholder separately afterward to get back on track. How do you tell that story?

Tell the new stories. Pay attention to the ones you are hearing in this time of massive change. They will show how culture is morphing in response to this pandemic.

Getting an organizational culture to react in a particular way is not linear, but complex, with unintended consequences and feedback loops you won’t expect. This is just a whisper to be open to the unexpected as you act.

Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

Peter Bonner is an organizational development and performance innovator with expertise in federal agency assessments, leadership development and interagency/multi-sector initiatives. Peter has worked with more than 30 different federal entities and 10 interagency or multi-sector partnerships. For example, he managed and facilitated the process for the interagency team at VA, DoD, OPM, and other agencies to improve Veterans’ hiring. Peter has worked on Presidential Rank Award evaluation teams, assessing the accomplishments of Senior Executive Service members to be awarded this rare honor. He also served on the White House initiative on multi-sector leadership, an effort to use human-centered design techniques to develop leaders of the future. Finally, Peter helped design and has been a lead instructor on the Digital IT Acquisition Professional training program. You can connect with him on Twitter @PeterCBonner.

Leave a Comment

One Comment

Leave a Reply