Culture plays a vital role in mission-critical organizations

Posted by on Feb 6, 2014 in Leadership | 0 comments

Dictionary.com says that “culture” is “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” But if you examine the process of culture – or how culture works – you find that culture is the set of shared values that drives common behaviors and goals. This is why culture plays a vital role in mission-critical organizations: Your culture is the reason people act and behave the way they do.

Mission-critical organizations are differentiated by their performance, which is a reflection of the organization’s culture (behaviors and beliefs or philosophies). The high-performing mission-critical organization values the responsibility, authority, and respect/appreciation that they derive from accomplishing tough jobs. By living the motto “Failure is not an option,” they accomplish goals with a unique perspective. They are extremely risk averse. Not to say that they won’t try to accomplish the impossible or merely tough to do, but rather they will work to mitigate all the risk so that these tasks have the greatest probability of success.

How to decide on culture

When it comes to mission-critical facilities, what values and, hence, what culture do you want?  What should a leader look for, what actions should the leader take, and what values are critical to this type of organization’s success?

Each organization has a unique mission — so, for this exercise, let’s assume you are running a data center where failure of the facilities would be very detrimental to the health of the company. For this type of organization, it’s all about risk mitigation; so what are the values and behaviors that support risk mitigation?

  • Attention to detail – In an engineering setting, very small changes can signal impending system failure. You need people who pay attention to detail, who intrinsically understand why it’s important to make sure all the Ts are crossed and the Is are dotted. They like hobbies where the devil is in the details – restoring cars, flying airplanes, developing software, and fine woodwork to name a few.
  • Pride in one’s work – These people will literally sign their names to their work product.  They associate their performance with their self-image. They are proud of what they have accomplished and are willing to share their accomplishments with you … because in their minds, it’s who they are. Because of this, they become their own taskmasters with perfection most often being the only acceptable goal. This sounds like the kind of people I would want running my multi-billion-dollar data center.
  • Curiosity – Along with the attribute of paying attention to detail, curiosity becomes very powerful when averting failure.  People that pay attention to detail notice things like a slight change in sound, and a curious person is driven to find out why it failed.  When a pump fails, they investigate why … and learn how to prevent it.  Curiosity may have killed the cat – but in these situations, it can save the data center.
  • Constant learning – All this curiosity drives constant learning.  While they may not have been to college or any school past a secondary education, they are constantly learning.  They read constantly – manuals, websites, books, and pretty much anything they can. Their favorite channel is the Science Channel. They will trace out pipes just to know where they go and what they do. With data centers normally being such very large, complex places, wouldn’t you want someone that is constantly learning about it?
  • Teaching – Most data centers don’t have a full training organization that supports them.  Many times training is relegated to vendors or the management staff. This daunting task is made much easier when the staff cross-trains themselves. Most great mission-critical people I know love to teach and share. They believe it makes the organization stronger and better able to handle any emergency. I agree.
  • Honesty – Honesty is a vital value that must be held by the staff.  They need to hold honesty above all. When something doesn’t go as expected, it is critical to understand exactly what went wrong and how to correct it. Being honest is the only way to really correct the actual problem. People that I have met in mission-critical operations are honest, usually brutally so. Would you want them to be any other way?

While definitely not a comprehensive list, these are some of the values that support risk mitigation in this type of organization. These values also drive behaviors that help organizations accomplish their goals efficiently. They drive behaviors that help mission-critical organizations perform successfully.

Where does organizational culture come from – and who decides?

Who decides what the culture will be for an organization? From an overall organizational perspective, leadership defines and sets the culture for their organization through their own behavior, their acceptance of (or lack of response to) the group’s behaviors, and the values that they support and foster. But what happens when you hire people?  How does hiring affect the desired culture?

People naturally bring their own “culture” with them. This personal culture is based, like the organization’s, on their own values and beliefs.  Personal culture is what drives each person’s behavior. This also means that if you want the person you are hiring to accept the culture of the organization, they either must come with those values and beliefs already or you have to get them to change. From experience, I can tell you it’s easier to hire people with the right culture to begin with, so hiring becomes a very important component in developing the culture of your organization.

Culture is vital to mission-critical organizations.  It’s what drives the decision-making process, which in turn drives people’s actions.  And when it comes down to it, actions define the organization’s performance. So if you need to improve performance, culture is an important place to start.

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