Flowcharts are a wonderful way of visualizing a process or a train of thought. BoingBoing has a hilarious (and sometimes scary) collection of irrelevant examples. I came upon a wonderful article about corporate risk aversity on Henrik Mårtensson’s blog site which used a set of flowcharts to clarify a set of cultural attitudes that I have long pondered upon.

Let me take a step back. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to experience a number of different corporate cultures as an IT consultant. Although my exposure to them was relatively fleeting, I was able to quickly get a taste for what it might be like to work at these companies fulltime. To me, a team meeting with company employees is like a magnifying glass upon the corporation. Add to that the sidebar conversations employees love pulling you into to share their opinions of “what just happened” and you can quickly come to some preliminary conclusions. For example:

  • Observe how employees interact and respond at meetings with and without management at the table.
  • Take note of how employees take ownership and accountability. Is there a “you can count on me” attitude or is there a sense of “is anyone else going to do this, cause it won’t be me?”
  • How open and honest are employees about things that went wrong? Are problems put on the table in a frank and open manner? Or, are they danced around like a bonfire at a college prep rally?
  • Who does most of the talking and what are they talking about? Are people responding directly to what is being discussed? Using clear and succinct language? Or, are their responses like following the plot of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie? A chain of double-talk, excuses and blame.

Once out of the meeting, it is inevitable that someone feels obligated to pull me aside to give me the color commentary as to what just happened. Navigating me through the political obstacle course of which they have long ago mastered.

What’s the outcome? The result is that these encounters reveal either a culture of openness and honesty or one in which mistakes and ideas are punished or frowned upon (“this is the way we have always done it.”)

Henrik’s article provides additional insight into how companies develop their level of risk aversity. Critical to his point are two different flowcharts. The first is the Current Reality Tree (CRT). This shows us 1) Detected mistakes are punished, and 2) Decisions resulting in no action are not recorded. How would this manifest itself in the corporate culture? Most likely, it would be the empty gap of “no action”. Why risk making a mistake?

The second flowchart is the Future Reality Tree. In this state, mistakes are okay and dissected to understand root cause and lessons are learned to prevent future mistakes along the same lines. If we’ve learned from our mistakes we have added knowledge to the organization. This increases our corporate assets. This is positive. Also, when a decision is made not to take action it is noted and recorded. In some ways this will punish incompetent inaction.

So, what can we do about this? Or, for some, do we want to do anything at all? The second option may be a viable alternative for those who have made their livelihood on practicing risk aversion in a risk averse organization. Being promoted despite inaction and incompetence. Since the inaction is not recorded, the individual’s superiors never see what is not being done.

For those of us who believe in continuous process improvement and lifelong learning, ignorance and inaction is not an option. Here are some suggestions I will share:

  • Model the right behaviour.
  • Keep your attitude and stories positive.
  • Acknowledge when someone else has put their neck out to take a risk.
  • Rock the boat a bit. Trust me, most likely you are not the only one looking for positive change. (A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.)
  • Find like minded individuals and come up with creative ways to inject your culture with the attitude of a higer risk tolerance.
  • Admit your mistakes and share what you have learned from them.
  • Share the message. Use articles like this one or Henrik’s to pass along the ideas in concrete and understandable language.
  • Make it grassroots. Don’t depend on a management team that is being rewarded by a risk averse culture.

At the end of the day, feel content that you have done your best. As I’ve blogged before, politics are not always a negative and are necessary for companies to function. The key is to create the right balances, develop strong relationships and recognize that their is no end point – it is on the journey itself that we will find satisfaction.