Your organization’s ability to change is rooted in (a) how much your culture supports individual agency, and (b) how flexible your culture is with control.
- Agency is about individual employees feeling confident in taking action, solving problems, and making decisions. If agency is not supported in your culture, your people will chronically be asking for permission or waiting for instructions. This is bad for change.
- Control refers to how the senior levels in the organization manage the activities of the organization. If control is too rigid in your culture, it can create conflict and bottlenecks. This is also bad for change.
If you want to measure your organization’s change readiness, then peel back the layers of your culture related to lack of agency and rigid control.
The way your culture handles agency and control is a subtle thing, and it’s never about either/or. All cultures support some level of agency—but not too much—and they do expect the top to exercise some control—but not too much.
What most people miss, however, is the breadth of the range that lies in between both ends of “some” “too much.” Where you sit in those two ranges will tell you a LOT about how ready your culture is for change.
One of the culture elements we measure in our culture assessment is Agility. Obviously Agility is about change, but most cultures actually embrace change at a high level (these days, how could you not?). But when you peel back a layer, there are specific building blocks of agility focused on agency and control that you need to understand when assessing your change readiness.
“Distribution of power,” for example, tells you if title and tenure matter more than knowledge or expertise inside the culture, so this one is about agency. If you score traditional on this metric, it means that people tend to defer to those who have higher titles or have been there longer—in other words, many of your employees are waiting and not taking action, even though they know what they’re doing.
This slows down change. Cultures like that tend to have a bias toward the status quo, and by over-valuing title and tenure, it means your people will hesitate to run with things. Change means entering into new territory, where the answers aren’t always clear, so it requires that some people grab the ball and run with it. When agency is not supported, that doesn’t happen, and that could be one of the reasons why your change initiative is behind schedule.
Another part of your culture to explore is accountability—specifically, do you routinely evaluate the quality of your decisions internally. You might be surprised at how few organizations do this in a disciplined way, and this is a key measure of how your culture handles control. A more traditional score on this building block means that it’s the leadership that determines what is effective or not, rather than a collaborative effort to evaluate quality of decisions. That’s tighter control, and it can sabotage change efforts, because once decisions are made, they tend to be revisited multiple every time a new leader is having doubts.
These are two of many elements of agency and control that are embedded inside your culture and have a huge impact on your ability to drive and implement change. When you deeply understand these cultural nuances, you can be proactive in shifting your culture in ways that will make your change more successful.