Generating positive change in expert cultures

20 Sep

Generating positive change in expert cultures

What is an expert culture?

Expert cultures exist in absolutes. There is a way of doing something that is the right way and then there is everything else. In this world inputs are valued as highly or higher than outcomes. Rules abound and are generally clear. Where they are not, outliers are made aware of the unwritten rules and quickly learn to work inside the boundaries. Status is everything.

At its best, an expert culture creates a feeling of safety for those who understand the limits and choose to accept the deal. Work is predictable and managed, everybody knows their place and either conform or leave. Members can confidently plan for the future, safe in the knowledge that it they keep their heads down they will enjoy the benefits of the predictability.

When an expert culture decays, the downside is palpable. Over time, a cycle plays out – direction, compliance, avoidance, pushing decisions to the top, leading to more direction. Frustrations build. Independent thinkers are treated with suspicion. If they persist with non-compliant behaviour, the system swings into action and brings them down. The experts reassure themselves that they are protecting the system.

Much of the public sector is an expert culture. Contemporary reports of widespread bullying across public sector environments are an outcome of expert cultures in decay. Adding to the confusion, achievement focused leaders are often transplanted into these environments to ‘fix’ them, but find that what worked in an ‘achiever’ culture, is perceived as heavy handed and bullying in the expert culture.

Influence is not a common trait in expert cultures, as its value is misunderstood. Why suggest or hint at something when I can just direct it to be done? Conversely, why would I risk rocking the boat if I have no authority? The misunderstood value of ‘influence’ and its lack of application in expert cultures restrict risk taking and leave little room for reflective learning.

To generate constructive change from an expert culture, we must acknowledge its limitations. Expert cultures value efficiency over effectiveness, and doing things right over doing the right things. To generate positive change in expert cultures, the impetus has to come from and be continuously sponsored from the top.  That’s tiring, but vital.

So what works?  The following tips will coax the experts to the boundaries. They will make their greatest contributions toward constructive change at their boundaries.  But never fall for the trap of abolishing the boundaries that experts need to operate within, or the expert system will quickly shut down:

  1. Assemble a leadership group that values outcomes over inputs. This includes removing members of the group who are unable or unwilling to adapt. Leaders need to understand and respect experts, but not be beholden or intimidated by them.
  2. Be open about the change that we need to see. Give illustrative examples of what is needed as well as what we no longer want. The expert workforce needs real examples at the start, or else it may decide that it is too unsafe to engage.
  3. Communicate that the change we want is imprecise. It is not a tight set of outcomes by a certain date, but expressed as a vision, which includes a degree of uncertainty of say, +/- 25%, which gives the workforce permission to have a go, with a large landing zone.
  4. Sponsor achievement oriented change from the top. Put programs in place that enable and encourage employees to test and learn. This includes trying new things that might fail. Fail quickly, learn and move on.  These innovation hubs may have a limited lifespan in an expert change cycle, but need to exist to allow early adopters the chance to engage safely.
  5. De-clutter. Contemporise or abolish outdated rules and policies.
  6. Focus on constructive behaviours. Beneath the surface of expert cultures lay deep passive-aggressive behaviours. Recognise constructive behaviour, never ignore poor behaviour and deal with it swiftly when it surfaces.
  7. Make influencing a habit.
  8. Introduce genuine accountability systems. Good governance, clear goal setting, measurable and achievable KPI’s must be in place and reported. Invest in de-centralised accountability, so that line managers have the authority, tools and capability to lead their teams holistically.
  9. Never confuse technical expertise with an expert culture. Invest in and celebrate the technical excellence and industry leading specialisation of our people. Encourage them onto the speakers’ circuit, to write white papers and blogs, apply for awards and showcase their talents.
  10. Celebrate achievement.