On cultural stagnation

Meaningful organizational change requires sustained consideration and effort. Whether you’re trying to bring resilience to your engineering practices, move away from a culture of blame, or do a “devops transformation”, it is critical to maintain organizational flexibility. These sorts of changes are not one-time pieces of work. Designing and maintaining culture is an ongoing process of learning and adapting.

A key aspect of resilience engineering is being able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. For a culture or organization to be resilient, it needs to be able to change as well. The attitude of “we’ve always done it this way” is harmful whether it is applied to technology or culture. If your communication patterns, processes, and other cultural building blocks are unable to adapt, you risk cultural stagnation.

When a culture becomes stagnant, the organization loses the ability to learn. This stagnation might look like a dashboard covered in “critical” alerts that people have learned to ignore, or it might look like an actual production incident that keeps happening over and over because people don’t feel able to make changes to fix it. Flapping tests, false positive alerts, recurring incidents, and working around broken processes all become normal. This normalization of deviance means that people within an organization stop seeing problems as problems, making it impossible to learn from them. Stagnation kills resilience.

One of the benefits of bringing new people into an organization is getting fresh pairs of eyes, who might see the things that the old guard has accepted as normal. A change-resistant culture, however, risks burning out those new people, as they find that they are unable to make any meaningful changes. At an organizational level, there are a few things you can do to prevent this and maintain a culture capable of learning and growth:

  • Clearly define and document processes. How should changes be proposed? How do decisions get made? Like power structures, processes are much easier to reason about when they are explicit rather than implicit.

  • Keep change logs, decision records, and any other cultural artifacts that can help provide context around decisions. Knowing what decisions were made and why can help prevent "we've always done it this way" as a fall-back reason for doing something. If you understand the constraints and trade-offs around why a past decision was made, you'll be better equipped to understand if they are still relevant in your current context.

  • Whenever possible, push authority for decision-making down closest to where the work gets done. If people have to go up through multiple levels of hierarchy for every change, not only is it easier to lose context when making those changes, but the added friction also contributes to stagnation.

  • Develop a career framework that defines the type and scope of changes or contributions that are expected at each level. Avoid falling into the trap of mistaking tenure within the organization for overall experience or expertise. Bringing experienced people into your organization but then ignoring their experience because "that's not the way we do things" does everyone a disservice.

  • Be careful not to get complacent after successes. Having early wins in a team or organization is great, but don't get too comfortable. Don't assume that finding one solution means that you've found the best or the only solution. Encourage people to continue learning and making suggestions even if things aren't obviously broken.

At an individual level, being aware of tendencies towards stagnation or normalization of problems is crucial to pushing back against them. In some ways, these are understandable, human tendencies - we all want to feel comfortable and to celebrate our wins, and a critical environment where nothing is ever "good enough" can be just as toxic. But keeping an eye out for complacency is key to maintaining a learning mindset, at an individual level as well as an organizational one. On a personal level, you can:

  • Keep notes on the work you are doing, the things you see as problems, and things you would like to see changed. It can be helpful to keep track of what challenges you are seeing, even if you aren’t able to fix them right away Ask yourself, are you dealing with the same issues you were 6 months ago, or different ones? Does it feel like things are getting better or worse? This can help fight against normalization of problems in your own head as well.

  • If you're struggling with prioritizing various change efforts, make a note of how much you care about each issue, or how high-impact it seems to be. Sometimes you have to save your energy or social capital for the highest-impact changes, but if you find yourself in a change-resistant organization, starting with something smaller might help overcome people's fear around change.

  • Remember that you can't single-handedly fix a broken culture. Past a certain point, a dysfunctional environment will break you instead. If you find that month after month or year after year you are still dealing with the same problems and haven't made any meaningful progress towards fixing them, it might be time to leave. Your notes on important issues can be things to keep an eye out for when you're looking for your next opportunity. Don't burn yourself out trying to fix an organization.

It's not always easy to see cultural stagnation from the outside. When you're interviewing, you have limited insight into a team or organization, and with only a quick glimpse inside, you can't necessarily see an ongoing or pervasive resistance to change. However, there are a few things you can try to look for:

  • Ask about how processes get changed. You might even ask for an example of a recent time the team or organization changed a process or tool. A lack of structure or rigor around decision-making or an aversion to processes and artifacts such as design documents can indicate less organizational maturity, or an environment where more of the processes and power structures are implicit.

  • See if you can find out anything about average organizational tenure. High turnover can indicate organizational problems, but an organizational with a large long-standing "old guard" can be resistant to change in a way that is very unfriendly to new ideas.

  • This is more difficult, but keep an eye out for signs of a low-trust environment, as a lack of trust often coincides with resistance to change. Try and get a feel for how open communication is and how concerns get raised. Do questions or disagreements get immediately shut down? Do people feel comfortable speaking in public channels, or do concerns only get raised privately? These things don't always become apparent until you've been in an environment for a little while, but the more you can do to try to surface them during the interview process, the better.

  • When possible, ask multiple people about team processes and challenges. If different members of an interview panel have very different views of how the organization works, that can be a sign of deeper issues. This often indicates implicit power structures or lack of clarity around process that can be frustrating to deal with and difficult to change.

Culture design is never a one-time effort. Rather, it is like a gardening project. Designable surfaces - processes, social scripts, artifacts and other changeable aspects - are not ways of changing a culture directly, but rather setting up finely-tuned interventions to encourage or guide it to grow in a certain way. This growth isn't always straightforward. There will always be failures and things that turn out differently than expected, but the important thing is to maintain a collective ability to learn and iterate. Don’t let cultural complacency or stagnation get in the way of growth and resilience.