Culture eats technology for breakfast

Part 5 of a series on toxic technology.

Culture in organisations is what people value, and how they behave. Some organisational cultures are undesirable, and will cause and embed problems until the culture changes. Some of these problems impact technology – culture can reduce its quality, and lead to it becoming toxic. Poor cultures can encourage neglect, poor decision making, and prevent people from caring about what is important.

These cultures are unfortunately very common, and even become codified in policy, process and practice. The emergence of undesirable cultures is perhaps inevitable – people’s individual motivations, preferences and biases lead towards them. But they can be changed once observed. Through leadership and the momentum of shared purpose, people can change their behaviour, and start to value what matters.

Command and control

A command and control culture means teams aren’t trusted. It means the more senior someone is, the more they presume to know what’s best for the organisation. Teams are commanded to deliver outputs rather than outcomes.

Toxic technology will emerge naturally in command-and-control cultures, because feedback loops don’t work. When new information is discovered, and it conflicts with the highest-paid-person’s opinion, then it’s disregarded. Often, the most senior people never even see new information – throughout a command and control culture, people are incentivised to follow the plan, not do what’s best for the organisation. This prevents new information flowing up the hierarchy, where it can influence strategy.

The problem is that command and control is pervasive. Long-term detailed business plans, target operating models and annual budgets all default to command and control – and they exist almost everywhere. Managers must preserve their reputations by keeping to promises and commitments. If growing technology risk is exposed as new, and contradictory information, it has to contend with these forces.

Command and control practitioners might point to under-performing or self-preserving teams to legitimise their methods. But if teams have psychological safely, they will be more open about their shortcomings in capability or experience – they will ask for the help they need. Command and control prevents this honest dialogue between managers and the managed.

Sometimes organisations must make major command and control decisions – to become competitive or to secure survival. Even in these circumstances, trusting in people and teams is a better foundation for the hardest change – such as redundancy. Reverting to pure command and control in these times could poison the culture – meaning that what survives is doomed to fail.

There are also circumstances where rigid standards-based controls can be used to exert influence at scale. This blunt instrument can be useful in making a big cultural shift, but its effectiveness is time-limited. If compliance rises high, then governance simply becomes friction. If compliance remains low, it could be unachievable – leading to the standard being subverted or ignored. Consistent failure to meet standards is often a signal of teams burdened with technical debt. Being punitive to the non-compliance motivates teams to hide, and therefore continue to accumulate, toxic technology. Crucially however, even if a standard is temporarily rigidly enforced, it should be done with trust-by-default – assuming everyone is doing their best to achieve it, but they may need help.

Everything is awesome

In some cultures it can seem that everything is awesome (when it is not). When communication is dominated by an organisations’ success stories, failure becomes a dirty secret. Bad news is discouraged or even suppressed. These cultures can be very fun for the majority, but they are usually time-limited. Once the disparity between communicated success and observed failure becomes stark, more people will become cynical and disengaged. A counter-narrative will emerge amongst the disaffected.

Most organisations should tilt the narrative towards the positive – it helps make for a happy, optimistic working environment. This is particularly important for external communication – it helps with hiring, and pride for the current workforce. But, when everything is supposedly awesome, it can be challenging to raise awareness of risk. Toxic technology can be allowed to grow because talking about it doesn’t fit the organisation’s positive narrative. If organisations experience the consequences of toxic technology – such as a cyber attack or system outage – these cultures don’t handle crises well. They are likely to be under-prepared, and shocked at how this could happen.

An extreme version of this culture exists where routine failure is celebrated as success. Large-scale outsourced public sector IT since the 1990s has largely been a series of calamitous failures. Yet, many embedded in the industry celebrate the same activity as unbridled success. The means the business case structures, delivery methodologies, organisation structures and funding models have remained largely unchanged despite routine, spectacular failure. This pattern has been perhaps one of the largest sustained contributions to the global mountain of toxic technology.

Shiny things

A powerful distraction to tackling legacy is human nature — we are attracted to the new. The technology industry is rife with the problem of under-valuing the old, and over-valuing the new.

Organisations focus on delivering new technology, often to the detriment of improving existing technology. We build new products. We digitise the analogue. But organisations perhaps don’t realise that software ages like fish? – if we look away for too long, it begins to rot. Legacy accumulates quickly by following the fashions — Javascript frameworks are a good example of this effect, where popularity rises for passing moments in the long history of web technology.

Not invented here syndrome”, is the tendency for technologists to craft a solution to a problem that has already been solved. This can be caused by the challenges of discovering existing solutions to problems, and how much to trust them. But more significantly, creators of technology have the desire to create. As a former software engineer, I know that creating something completely new is emotionally rewarding. Particularly when compared to configuration and composition of existing technology.

Technology that has been around for decades, such as SQL databases, web frameworks, and web servers can be harnesses to solve a vast range of problems. So many problems can be solved by “putting strings into databases (and taking them back out again)”. Technologists must be very user-focused and goal-focused to choose the boring technology that works best. Unfortunately, early career progression as a technologist can depend upon exposure to a variety of technologies – incentivising trying out new things where possible.

The pursuit of shiny things affects entire organisations when they prioritise reputation over sustainability. To some degree this is legitimate – reputation drives sales, inflates the share price and gets investment. An inflated reputation also helps gain momentum when transforming organisations from the inside. But reputation-over-sustainability doesn’t last – at some point there are consequences for neglect.

The love of shiny things runs deep. Design and systems thinking connote a sense of freedom often only possible by starting anew. Organisational, political, and professional leaders are valued and rewarded, for their output – measured through the creation of announceable things – not the outcomes they influence through teamwork. It takes a lot to resist these forces, and spend some time polishing up what used to be shiny.

Too many heroes

Organisations love a hero. They celebrate the achievements of individuals or teams who achieve impressive feats, against the odds. They might deliver something new in a heroically a short timescale. They might avert catastrophe by working all hours to resolve a problem. A culture of everyday heroics has innocuous beginnings, with people receiving praise for going beyond the usual expectations of their role. But when entrenched, it makes the organisation fail to see systemic failure, or appropriately recognise systemic success. Rapid delivery might be the result of years of bold investment in platforms. Heroic ‘all-nighters’ by the operations teams are often the result of systemic neglect of technology.  

Organisations shouldn’t stop celebrating these ‘heroes’. But they must find balance. They should strive to celebrate systemic success or failure. This is hard, because systemic change often doesn’t have an event, or moment, with which to associate the fanfare. They should celebrate the teams, past and present, who made the success, or averted failure possible – not just the individuals who made the most visible impact. Celebration creates incentives, and an imbalance towards the short-term, highly visible success stories. Incentives are needed to encourage longer term impact, where individual credit is less likely.

Improve culture by observing it first

Identifying and cataloguing cultures is not scientific – it’s just too hard to characterise and categorise collective values and behaviours . But culture still has a powerful effect. What’s important is to find ways to spot undesirable cultures, talk about them, and improve them – before they do too much damage to the organisation, and its technology.

Continue reading part 6.

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