Last month I explored the role and impact of leadership in the mission critical environment.  In this month’s blog, I take the discussion into organizational culture and how it affects mission critical operations. But first we need to understand what organizational culture is.

Organizational culture is a shared set of behaviors, values, and beliefs that are held by a group of people.

So how does this help us?  Mission critical operations are groups that must accomplish tasks that involve risk to people, assets, or processes of vital importance.  In many circumstances, failure to complete these tasks – or improperly completing the tasks – can have very severe, negative impacts to safety, the continuation of the operation, or even the survival of the organization.

What people do and what motivates them plays an important role in their success.

So what we find when we look at successful mission critical operations cultures is a commonality of behaviors that support risk mitigation.  The interesting thing is that behavior (the result of the process of making decisions) is driven by the values and beliefs of the individuals in the group.  So what, then, are the important values and beliefs that must exist in the group for it to succeed?  Well, that actually depends on the “mission” of the organization.

For example, if you are building an elite military group, you may wish to instill the overriding values of always being faithful and never leaving anyone behind.  If you are building a nuclear reactor operations team, safety first and risk mitigation would be more appropriate overriding values.  Since this blog talks about building organizations whose missions are to operate data centers, let’s explore the overriding values and beliefs individuals in these organizations must share to create an effective culture.

1.   Risk mitigation– In the data center environment, reliability and safety are paramount.  Reliability is the by-product of successfully eliminating risk during operations and maintenance as well as from environmental factors.  When we share values of risk mitigation and apply them in the personal realm, the by-product is a safe environment for people.  So reliability and safety are produced when we value risk mitigation in all that we do.

2.   Efficiency– Data centers are expensive to operate properly, and businesses are constantly trying to reduce costs.  If the individuals in the organization value efficiency, they will use their resources in the most efficient manner and costs will be reduced.  Efficiency in the way we use energy, manpower, and other resources makes the organization valuable to the overall company.

3.   Effectiveness– Individuals that value effectiveness naturally align their effort with what is necessary to fulfill the mission and goals of the organization. The ability to fulfill the organization’s mission in the most efficient manner makes the group valuable to the company as well. 

4.   Innovation– When people, as a group, use their capacities and resources in innovative ways directed at the mission critical operations, the result is ever-increasing effectiveness and efficiency.

5.   Appreciation– Appreciation is one of the more critical values leadership must display for the organization to succeed.  Imagine how quickly the culture will degrade if leadership fails to appreciate the organization’s efforts to mitigate risk, to be efficient and effective, and to innovate.

6.   What we do matters– The belief that individual and group effort is significant because it will help society or further a worthy cause is also very important in mission critical operations.  Individuals and groups that believe their work is important take great pride in their work and progress and work to succeed.

Now that we’ve identified some of the values and beliefs that create successful mission critical organizations, how do we instill them into the group?

This is a difficult question to answer, because sometimes we can’t.  People have their own internal values and beliefs that they have developed and learned over their lives.  These values and beliefs can be very deeply rooted or casually held, but that is up to them.  What this means to you as their leader is that you set the values.  Beliefs cannot be set; they are acquired with experience over time.  They can be influenced over time by the actions of leadership, but there is no guarantee that the beliefs you want will or can be assimilated into the group.

The easiest way to get the values and beliefs you want into your organization is to hire them.  You find the people that already have them and just hire those people.  But since this is not normally an option, what can you do?  Well, you then, as the leader, inform the group of the new values, and then do what I recommended in the previous blog.  You exhibit behaviors that support the values that you want in the organization.  You reward those behaviors that are examples of the values; you implement processes that dissuade behaviors that are contrary to the new values.

It sounds simple, until you realize that you must be an example of these values all the time, with no time off…ever.  You must also realize that, if you implement a major change in the values of the organization, there will be some who will not agree or support them.  In my experience, roughly 30% of the incumbent personnel will not support major, sweeping changes to the values of the organization.  This 30% will fight you any way they can and will eventually have to be replaced as they leave on their own or are forced out.

Here are the steps to make an organizational culture that you desire:

1.   Announce it– Present the values in a form that clearly articulates what they are and the supportive behavior changes that must be accomplished.  This is one of the times when I don’t believe in group consensus.  As the leader, you must lead – and this is one of those times.  You must lead them toward the new values.  This doesn’t mean that you do this in a vacuum.  I would make sure that your company leadership knows what you are doing,  and understands the repercussions of these types of changes and what you hope to gain by this action.

The announcement can come in the form of a new mission statement and goals.  This is one of the ways that I have helped lead organizations to success.

2.   Implement it– Place the proverbial stick in the ground and don’t accept behaviors that don’t support the new values from this point on.  Along with this, attempt to get group consensus on how to implement the new values and the resulting change in processes, procedures, and programs.

3.   Reward good behavior– Make it a quest to find those people who support the new values with their behavior, reward them immediately and publicly for this.

4.   Identify the “20%”- This is the part of the organization that is enthusiastic about the changes and supports them whole-heartedly.  Find ways to support them, promote them, and delegate to them.

5.   Identify the “30%”– I’m always concerned when I have to make this recommendation, but there will be a part of your organization that will not make the transition.  For whatever reason, they will not adopt the new values and that must be dealt with.  My only advice for you is advice that my father gave me:  “It’s not who you fire that gives you problems, it’s who you don’t.”

These actions will get you well on the way to changing or remolding the organizational culture in your group.  Changing an organization requires skill and persistence.  And if you are new to this process, I recommend that you seek the help of a mentor who has successfully changed the culture of an organization before you begin.  It is a rewarding endeavor, but not for the faint of heart.  You will encounter confrontations with personnel, experience wonder at what your team can accomplish, and find joy in seeing your organization succeed.

Next month we’ll tackle the process of hiring for a mission critical organization and how to find the people who have the greatest potential of success in the mission critical environment.