Making changes stick requires attention

In The Design of Engineering Culture - DZone DevOps, a great read on “designing” your engineering culture, these two paragraphs jumped out at me:

In addition to motivation, change requires attention. A fair amount of people’s attention is devoted to doing their work when everything is business as usual. Any extraordinary circumstances (such as financial stress, workplace conflicts, or outside personal issues) will deplete people’s attention budgets further. Be aware of the different factors outlined in Paloma Medina’s BICEPS model of the core needs and motivations of people in the workplace. If people feel that their needs aren’t being met, that can take their attention and make them less amenable to change. For example, if an engineer feels like they aren’t being treated equally (the “E” in BICEPS) by their manager and that is causing significant stress, it will be harder for them to focus on something that feels less important, such as remembering to use a new post-mortem template.

Company- or department-level stressors — such as restructuring, staff turnover, or organizational financial concerns — will reduce the overall capacity for change. Especially over the long term, bad habits can form, adversarial thinking can become ingrained, and people can become so burnt out that they lose most of their attention or capacity to change at an individual level. This sort of situation makes meaningful change more necessary but also more difficult to enact. In exceptionally stressful circumstances, you may need to wait until big picture issues have been resolved before trying to make meaningful changes — for example, don’t try to force a new post-mortem facilitation training program on people right after (or during) a big round of layoffs.

I’ve worked in organizations where the company-level stressors (restructuring and staff turnover) impact staff so badly that despite wanting to change, the organisation is unable to muster the motivation to make changes stick.

Of course, half-hearted attempts at change, which fail due lack of support, simple feed the burn-out and make it harder for the next attempted change to succeed.​

The lesson here, I believe, is to be intentional about your company culture when things are going well, rather than reactively once you’re in the weeds.

..Because an organization that doesn’t actively create the culture it wants will end up with a culture anyway. It will be the disorganized total of its employees’ thoughts and experiences–based on everything from how they’re treated to where they sit. - Brent Gleeson

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