“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
One of the greatest challenges that leaders can face is the task of cultural change in the organization. Sometimes, the organizations we are working in and leading have a culture that has not kept up with modern times or has “strayed” from the path of the organizational charter, mission statement, core values, or road to excellence. At other times, the organization and its people have become complacent, stuck on status quo, need a reboot or <sometimes> a good swift kick in the rear.
It is extremely challenging when working on the inside of an organization to recognize this “straying, failure to keep up, or reboot requirement.” Often times, this is why a fresh leader is brought in from the outside. I, myself, have been that new leader or partner in the leadership team on a few occasions across my leadership journey…and I imagine you have, too!
For me, accurately and completely defining organizational culture is a challenge in the 21st century. A quick jump over to Wikipedia would share that organizational culture contains the following elements: history, product, market, technology, strategy, type of employees, management style, and national culture. Culture also includes the organizations vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits. More recently, Chris Cancialosi wrote that company culture is, “the way things get done around here.”
From my perspective and professional experience, organizational culture includes all of these elements and many others to include: ethics, morals, and values…as well as growth and development of the workforce; interpersonal, internal, and external organization communications, internal and external perceptions, reputation. Most importantly, culture includes how we conduct daily business, operations, and treat our co-workers and team mates.
Once you’ve made the decision to execute a change program that specifically identifies a target within organizational culture–arguably the hardest part of the change management, and one I will expound upon in a future article–a change process must be followed. I have had great success referencing John Kotter’s eight steps to successful change. However, on some occasions, there is an immediacy to the change timeframe that can be driven by a myriad of challenging factors to include public concern, rapidly descending market share, inappropriate activities, or loss of trust to name a few that demand a faster approach. Personally, I have found that there is a correlation between the immediacy of the change requirement and the ability to institutionalize the change (Kotter’s step 8). I believe this can be a direct result of the length of tenure of the change agent as often times they are moved onward to another challenge or organization and the change they instilled does not last. Hopefully this is pre-thought versus an after-thought as it is quite discouraging to return to an organization post-change and see the same situations in play that the people worked diligently to correct.
Exploring cultural change in an organization of 1000 personnel can be very challenging, but imagine the scope of the task when the organization is made up of tens of thousands, as is the case with the Internal Revenue Service, Veterans Administration, or US Secret Service (to name a few recent and highly publicized examples). Wow!
Let’s step back a minute, and you’ll probably realize that most of us will never make a change at the degree these three examples required. The cultural changes most of us will make will be of the 1000 personnel or less variety. So….how do we do it?
“Quote: Friction is good for an organization.”
Colonel (ret) Albert J. Bowley Jr.
From my experience, once we know what needs to happen we need to build a specific strategy to make it occur. Communication is the base element that must be maximized and never-ending across the organization and throughout the entire change process. I believe that if people know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and can locate some value within it that directly affects them, they will endeavor to support it. I have also found that there is typically 5-10% who will never agree with the change and will always work to ignore it, skirt it, or attempt to derail it. This group that I like to call the “10%ers”, can create some friction, but as one of my favorite bosses Colonel (ret) John Bowley used to tell us subordinate leaders, “Friction is good for an organization.” Sadly, this group is never the group who is brazen, confident, or capable enough to leave the organization for a new adventure or opportunity for excellence, so be prepared to engage them going forward, turn the friction they create into positive energy, and do not let them wear you down!
Once you’ve identified the need for change, work with the leadership team to establish targeted methods and timeframes to be followed. Once prepared, communicate these across the organization and throughout the workforce, answer their questions and reduce their concerns as best possible. Be mindful of honesty and transparency in your messaging while ensuring their understanding of the compelling need and timeliness for this change.
As the change takes place, ensure that your messaging continues at a frequent and deliberate rate. Watch for signs of subordinate leaders who are less than supportive and correct them quickly. The “10%ers” will be watching for them as well and if these two are able to combine, the ensuing “friction” could spark a fire that distracts, disrupts, or destroys the change efforts.
Additionally, you the leader and your subordinate leaders need to be out and about in the organization on a daily basis talking with people and articulating the changes and reinforcing the messages. “Talking the talk and walking the walk” go a long way during a time of organizational change and seems to get people into the step of the new change much quicker.
An area that needs to be planned for and accomplished across the change cycle is recognition of successes and failures. Too often these are overlooked and momentum and passion fade. Plan for some timely celebrations (read scheduled) across the lifecycle of the change that are connected to milestones that motivate like: goal attainment, metric indications, outside feedback, process reworks, or personnel accomplishments. These celebrations are needed for all involved and will help to cement the change across the organization. You will find that even the toughest of the “10%ers” enjoy the recognition events and it is at these times that I have been able to recognize the organization that we are striving to become.
As I wrote in the opening paragraph, organizational culture change is a challenging activity for a leader. I have also found it to be one of the most rewarding! I encourage leaders that I mentor to consider engaging a dynamic cultural change process as one of their leadership activities. Successful leaders thrive on making good things happen through others; cultural change of an organization is one of the best “good” things I have ever accomplished. Are you ready for this type of challenge in your leadership journey?
Great article Joe! You did a nice job capturing many of the aspects of organizational functioning (or dysfunction) that are affected by culture. I’ve found that culture is at the root of all behavior and attitudes within an organization and since it is so all encompassing it can be really difficult for leaders to put their finger on a concise definition that they can work with. Hence our working definition of “the way we do things around here.”
Second, when we observe behavior in the workplace, what we are really seeing are the manifestations of the underlying beliefs, assumptions and values in which they are rooted. This can present some challenges in terms of peeling back the onion in order to really understand what’s driving those behaviors we see.
That said, it can be really tricky for players in the organization to effectively dig down to those fundamental beliefs and assumptions because much of those cultural norms reside in the collective subconscious. That’s the power of culture- we are able to create a series of collectively agreed upon habits that we can use to guide behavior without having to even really think about them day-to-day in a conscious way. We just go on “autopilot” which leaves our mental capacity open to handle other things. When that culture and the resulting behaviors yield success we’re good to go. It’s only when they fail to yield success that they become a problem. Unfortunately, business leaders can’t wait for the latter to occur before making the decision to focus on their culture as it may be too late at that point.
To your good point, if leaders approach change by focusing at the observable behaviors without gaining a clear understanding of why those behaviors are happening to begin with they can often feel like they’re playing a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ by constantly making changes that don’t have the sustainable impact they need to really change the game.
Chris – Thanks for the feedback! Love your points and the recognition of how cultural change can be and how easy it is to spend time on things that do not fix the real issues. – Joe