Digital Meets Culture: Getting Your Culture in Line With Your Digital Strategy

A recap of the July 15, 2021 event hosted by the Web Managers Community.
Sep 28, 2021

Federal teams are continuously improving digital services to enhance customer experience and improve accessibility for all. These advancements require teams to be agile; they must innovate and manage the cultural transition required to undergo transformation. And change is hard — often because those involved might not fully understand what is changing, or how they can become part of it and harness its power.

The Web Managers Community recently hosted a panel featuring federal leaders who discussed ways to help teams navigate organizational culture change.

Work culture is a collection of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that make up the regular atmosphere in a work environment. Sounds pretty simple, but, obviously, there’s more to it. Think of it as an “iceberg,” suggests Special Assistant for Organizational Development Ann-Marie Regan of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, “what you see above the waterline would be the behaviors and attitudes and how we do things here […] right at the waterline, and maybe a little bit below, that level is your belief system that informs your behavior and attitudes.” But the biggest part of the iceberg is submerged and not visible. That is the organizational culture, the multiple unit-level cultures, which, if not understood, could challenge the culture shift.

Understanding the “patchwork” of work-units’ cultures can be key to understanding the bigger system and designing the right intervention to help guide people through the process. For example, doing a cultural assessment of the teams implementing a strategic plan can uncover how teams and people interact with each other.

As a principal designer at the Lab at Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Patricia Beirne said her work focuses on bringing innovation practices into government. She partners with other government teams, engages them in co-creation, and teaches them participatory design, helping teams understand what is inherently governmental about their culture and may not be easily disrupted.

“You can map out how to get from point A to point B, and you can imagine how a digital tool is going to get you there. But culture is providing the current; it’s either going to accelerate you getting there or it’s going to be something you work against.”

Knowing your organization culture is key to strong collaboration. Lakshmi Grama, Associate Director for Dissemination and Digital Communications at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said understanding your stakeholders and having their collaboration are important ways to facilitate change. The delivery of digital products and services is usually a user-focused, iterative process, but you need to bring your stakeholders along to buy into the process. This also includes your budget and acquisition colleagues who need to support agile approaches to design and development.

It is also important to connect the goals and design decisions of your new product or service with the agency mission and the public interest—and in a way that can increase employee engagement.

Beirne suggests setting a thoughtful pace and a goalpost “as far away as people can agree on, then mapping the steps to get there. So that you can say, we are not going to get a big change right away.” Such incremental steps can allow teams to test their approach, measure success, and reassess their journey if needed.

While some people find change energizing, others can find it scary. Change can mean loss for some people and, from a behavior or neuroscience point of view, it can challenge the brain’s sense of stability and trigger stress.

Grama encourages everyone to use empathy when discussing change, particularly with those teams who are most impacted by it. For those fearing change, it is valuable to not only explain the change, but also show what stays the same, even if it’s just a small part.

Framing and reframing the change are part of the process, just as admitting that this is a disruptive process, which can be uncomfortable. Regan advises looking at how change creates opportunity, and helping people look for that. If possible, design a support system for leadership and staff, and help them shift in a positive direction. Coach leaders who may be uncomfortable with change on techniques they can use to lead with confidence.

Transparency about why the change is really needed can build trust and relationships with everyone who has a role in the change. This in turn can get everyone excited about what change means to them.

Alex Glade, a Presidential Innovation Fellow detailed to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, added that strategic communication is part of bringing people along on the journey and fostering the “we are all in it together” feeling.

“Elevate the wins that are happening that really support the culture we want to have,” Glade said. She also encourages people to understand what is rewarded and celebrated in their organization, and if the new values are in alignment.

The same principles behind creating useful digital experiences apply to helping people cope with the impact of culture change, but we have to strive to bring together teams across various levels and silos to collaborate.

Speakers agreed that being a life-long learner and fostering a culture of learning within your organization can increase the adaptability to change, which often is inevitable. Whether it comes from the top of the hierarchy (such as a new legislative requirement) or the bottom, change is intrinsically connected to learning and may allow for unexpected creativity. Sometimes the best things come out of an environment with the most constraints. When working on a digital transformation, Regan said, “there are plenty of constraints, which means there’s plenty of creativity to be had.”