Advice & Counsel: Getting Cultures To Change
What Does it Take to Change a Culture?
When setting out to purposefully change the culture, starting off in the right way will make all the difference. The first step should be to make certain, like an orchestra, everyone is following the same musical score. The leader must forge agreements among the senior team in three areas.
- What the new culture will stand for and will value.
- The basic truths that will set expectations & guide the change from the existing culture to the new one.
- The plan for how to make necessary improvements.
Stand For & Value
As a new strategy takes shape, the wise leader asks what changes to the way the organization operates will be necessary in order for it to be successful. That question prompts thinking through how the culture must complement the strategy, including what sort of attitudes & behavior should be valued. But, if the result is a list of general aspirations (as often is the case), the opportunity to change behavior will be lost.
Only if the leader conducts a thoughtful debate on what will be valued in the future compared to what has been encouraged in the past will it be clear to the organization what behavior is expected. The result of that debate should be the top people agreeing on a handful of big, philosophical choices.
- Freedom...what will be controlled at corporate, at the division level, and at individual units?
- Openness...will information, results, and reasons for performance be transparent & widely disseminated or closely held?
- Conformity...what will be the balance of expectations between saluting & carrying out directives or voicing dissent?
- Courage...will we do what we say we're going to do ... will we take the right action however difficult when principles are ignored?
- Purpose...how much will we allow impact on financial results to dictate our standards ... when will needs of customers or of employees be more important than returns to investors?
If done well, making such choices will clarify what the organization looks & acts like in a way that best matches the demands of the strategy. It should also open the door to the changes that must be made to shape the culture of that new organization. To proceed, the senior team must agree on the major propositions (the basic truths) for the change effort and then decide on the sequence of events & steps that will lead in that direction.
There are two reasons for the leader to pause long enough to ensure agreement on the basic truths, (the propositions that guide the change effort). One is to set realistic expectations for the challenges involved in changing a culture, and the second is to ensure that the senior executive group is of one mind about the change effort before deciding on a plan. If there is disagreement, it should be resolved at this point, before the organization as a whole becomes involved. Here are five propositions that have proven most helpful to leaders embarking on a program to change the culture of their organizations.
- One event or decision regardless of how big or dramatic will not change the culture in positive, sustainable ways. Culture will only change because of a combination of factors. The best results come from the interplay of actions on several fronts...the leader's job is to ensure they combine in the right way.
- Behavior must change before attitudes change. Sustainable improvement of the culture comes only when attitudes change...that happens after gradual alterations in behavior...which happens as people experiment with new tools & ways of acting and see positive results.
- Hardball, not softball. Attempts to get the culture to change are often limited to improving teamwork and relationships...seen by many as "soft" (translated as less measurable, substantive, and important). For the culture to change, managers must believe that doing so will make it easier to achieve the strategic & operational goals on which they are measured. Experiments that enhance teamwork but do nothing for revenue, costs, or speed will have no lasting effect on the culture.
- Change starts at the top. Willingness to experiment comes after people believe those above them in the organization and others who are influential are committed to change. If the leader isn't convincing about her commitment to change, any progress will be temporary.
- Work on yourself. Leaders who have most successfully changed their organizations have sharpened their own abilities as much as they have expected others to improve. They learn what they must do differently to bring about change with the same discipline and effort with which they master the balance sheet, new markets, or new technology.
If debates on what will be valued and on basic truths are done well, constructing a plan through which the culture will change will be faster & easier. Once at that point, what goes into such a plan?
While there is no single formula best for every situation, there are core elements that always appear in the best culture change efforts and that, when arrayed in the right sequence, provide the best chance for sustainable culture change.
- A clear description of the kind of place the leader wants to see...communicated in a compelling way to win support of the most influential people and build motivation to change. It is here that the leader and her key executives shape an image of the optimal culture, one that will bring to life the big philosophical choices of what should be valued by the organization they will lead.
- Pilot programs to experiment with new techniques & behavior...that should achieve tangible gains on important issues & problems while also providing a taste of what the new culture can be like.
- Based on what is learned in those pilot programs, training that homes in on the skills & behavior needed to realize the strategy, and will be common in the hoped-for culture.
- Education programs should follow pilots and dovetail with training (importantly, education and training are not the same). The combination should reinforce the right techniques & behavior.
- An interactive internal communication system that informs about what, why & what's next and provides for honest feedback.
- Talent, measurement, and reward systems that are consistent with the image described by the leader of how the organization should ultimately operate.
- Senior leaders setting an example for everyone else by working hard on sharpening their own capabilities needed in the new culture as people around them take up the challenge to learn new techniques. Also by holding themselves and their managers accountable for progress. And importantly, the leader ensuring that the people who report to her are the right ones to lead the company forward; if they are not, by putting in place a new team.
Lying behind what will be valued, guiding propositions, the right elements, and a top team of one mind is the key to success of any company-wide improvement effort: how the leader approaches this task. She must be part intrepid explorer leading her managers into unknown territory and part orchestra conductor ensuring coordination from throughout her organization. And her judgments must be the right ones about pace, people, and priorities. Completing these tasks requires connecting the dots in a way that produces a clear but flexible path forward.