What Beer and Process Change Have in Common

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Jeff Cole

Pint of beer


If you are a beer drinker – how do you like your beer?   When I was a kid, the choices were binary -  3.2% or 6%;  bottle or tap;  affordable or not affordable – that was it.     Today the array of choices is very broad.   Which camp do you fall in - do you prefer the big brands like Bud and Coors?   Or are you a fan of the micro-brewery? 

Pour yourself a tall one and get ready for this transition – beer can actually teach us something about successful process change.   Why?   Culture eats process change for lunch and beer is actually a great metaphor for corporate culture.

As we pop the top on this topic, the definition of culture we will use is this: “Culture = the shared beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors of an organization.”  It is a very powerful force.  If you launch a new process change going in the same direction as your culture – it will embrace and accelerate that change.   If, however, your change goes against the culture, said change will blow back in your face at 200 MPH (or KPH for those outside the US).  Understanding the culture of the organization your process change will impact is vital.   Many don’t even know to look at this, and some who do only scratch the surface.

So, back to that whole “beer thing”…    

When some people look at organizational cultures they make crude, high-level assumptions.   Apple is an innovative culture.   Motorola is an engineering-based culture.  Bank of America is a conservative culture.   It’s a comparison at the Bud vs. Coors level that some people tend to apply to entire organizations, no matter how large or diverse or complex they are.  It’s common on a number of levels – Democrat vs. Republican; one religion vs. another religion, etc.

In reality, corporate cultures are much closer in nature to micro-breweries.  Small-batch specialty blends.  You can’t really paint an entire corporation’s culture with a wide brush and only one color on your palette.  Overall, your company may be seen as “fast-paced” or “Risk-averse” or “Customer-friendly”.  However, does it make sense to you that you may see a different culture in the Finance department than you see in Sales?   Marketing vs. Manufacturing?   Might you see different cultures based on which office you visit?   If you are in the US working for an international firm, it may be obvious to you that the culture in your Midwestern office may differ from that of your offices in Germany.    What may not be so obvious is that the culture in the different offices or departments throughout Germany may also have their differences – ranging from subtle to bold.

In rolling out process change, it’s tempting to view your audience as having one giant mental On/Off switch that you need to flip to get them to engage in your change.   However, in the micro-brew world we live in, it’s often better to consider viewing it as a hundred smaller On/Off switches you need to flip.    Culture stands directly between you and those switches.  The communications you undertake with the Finance guys may be very different than those you do with Engineering, and so on.    More work and more advance thought?  Absolutely – but also smoother rollouts with less resistance and roadblocks.

Now that you’ve made it this far I hoist my tankard of ale in your honor and wish you the best on your next change.  Bottoms up!