Culture is a scary word when it comes to medical tests, and even scarier when it comes to organizational change. Getting culture wrong may not be the quickest way to mess up organizational change, but it is definitely the most effective. Here are five things to watch out for, or to focus on if you want to wreck your chances of successful business transformation:
1. Misunderstanding culture
Telling sophisticated business people they don’t understand organizational culture sounds vaguely – okay, very – insulting. Yet ten times out of ten, when you ask every member of a senior team to define their organizational culture, you get back as many answers as there are team members.
Culture can seem slippery, but actually it is pretty easy to define. You know how different workplaces have different codes, different unwritten rules, different in-jokes and stories and values? Those are all evidence of organizational culture: the way we do things around here.
Luckily, legions of clever researchers have dug beneath the surface of organizational culture to identify the specific factors that drive – or destroy – employees’ engagement with their work. For Matchpoint’s Work Culture assessment, we use the 38 aspects of organizational culture that multiple research studies have demonstrated correlate strongly with energy at work, absorption in work and general job satisfaction. Not all these factors define the culture of any one organization, but they provide a useful menu of what could be significant.
Once you have a range of potential culture factors, it’s time to get personal. The best way to find out exactly which culture factors apply in your organizational culture is to get input from representative samples of employees at all levels and across all functions. You can do this via an assessment (I would say that, wouldn’t I?) or by using expert facilitators to tease out key unwritten rules.
If you are tempted to skip this culture-definition step, don’t. Culture is an organization’s immune system – it will attack any incompatible invaders ruthlessly and unceasingly. To avoid disaster, start by knowing what you are dealing with when it comes to organizational culture.
2. Pretending culture doesn’t matter
Why bother? some change leaders ask themselves at this point. We have urgent strategic priorities to focus on, not this wishy-washy culture nonsense.
If only change worked like that. But just as emotions trump logic when it comes to individual decision-making, so culture trumps strategy at the organizational level. As noted above, misjudging or ignoring the culture can doom your change program from the start, but working with the culture is one of the most powerful levers of success.
Culturally-aligned change builds on what employees already feel proud of in their organization. A good overarching theme for culturally-sensitive change – taken from the highest-performing public middle school in New York City – is Better All The Time. In your change communications, link your goals to existing aspects of the culture, e.g. by emphasizing how building on intellectual property will drive growth for a culture proud of its expertise, or by talking about how working together will bring about a successful merger for a firm that sees itself as strongly team-oriented. In change planning and implementation, check that employees are involved in ways congruent with the way things are done around here. Be alert to potential culture-clashes, and resolve them not by storming past the inconvenient cultural obstacles but by putting culture front and center, and finding ways to achieve your change by deploying cultural levers.
3. Trying to change culture profoundly
But what if the number one objective of your change program is to change the culture?
If you agree, you are not alone – culture change was the number one issue in Deloitte’s recent Human Capital Trends 2015 survey. Unfortunately, culture change is where too many change programs founder. Not because they are trying to change culture – if an organization needs changing, its culture almost certainly needs attention – but because they are trying to change too much, too soon.
I come back to the idea of culture as the organization’s immune system. If you fight too hard against it, you end up killing the organism / wrecking the business. The trick is to tweak, to flex, to adapt and strengthen where necessary. It’s a mistake to think that any culture is completely bad. You may want your organization’s culture to be less individualistic, for example, but want people to keep on valuing hard work and competition with rival firms in the marketplace.
In the end, there is no universal perfect culture, only the right culture balance to bring you from where you are now to the organizational future you want to realize. It is as important for success to recognize the existing strengths of your culture (every organization that isn’t an empty building has strengths) as it is to identify the ways of working, thinking or collaborating that are not helping.
4. Confusing culture with values
When you have identified the aspects of your culture that need to change, don’t make the mistake of focusing too much on values.
Values are fine, so far as they go, but too many change agents see them as an end in themselves. They get senior management together, articulate and agree a set of values, then tell everyone else in the organization about them by creating a range of tchotchkes, screensavers and washroom posters.
This. Achieves. Nothing.
Values are a useful summary of key aspects of culture, but they are only tangentially related to culture change. Culture change is all about getting people to do things differently at work – to establish relationships with suppliers instead of focusing on individual transactions, to adopt Agile ways of working instead of set-in-stone planning, to adopt a can-do attitude rather than waiting for perfect timing or resources before shipping a product.
The risk of paying too much attention to values is that senior management will forget they need to walk as well as talk (never mind the challenge of chewing gum at the same time). If you must have them define their values, move swiftly on to making those values real for everyone, top and bottom in the organization. Change fatigue, remember, comes not so much from too much change as from a feeling of disconnect between what is grandly stated by leaders and the reality of daily corporate life. You need culture change to start at the top of the organization, but take care it does not end there.
5. Trying to control too much
If there is one message I would like you to take away from this series on organizational change and this post in particular, it is that change cannot be controlled, only facilitated.
Over-controlling change always fails. Successful organizational change depends on people taking it upon themselves to do things differently, and people resent being told what to do in anything other than an emergency evacuation situation.
What works is an involved and evolving process. Involved change leadership means opening yourself up to change as a leader and as an individual. If you are changing aspects of the organization’s culture, you will have to lead, manage, communicate and behave in new ways, at the same time as you are leading others through their own personal changes. You cannot step aside and let the process run itself. You have to be intimately involved, with all the stresses, risks and uncertainties that involves. This involvement is in some ways the opposite of control, and much more demanding of the leader.
Successful change is also an evolving process. As I said in an earlier post, only Pollyanna Planners expect plans to actually work out. Plans need to be flexed in response to the reaction from employees, in response to the discretionary efforts leveraged and the new directions processes and even goals can take. Trying to set change in stone is never going to work. Instead, leaders must see themselves as facilitators, as inspirers, and most of all as fellow workers within the organization.
Conclusion: How NOT to Mess Up Organizational Change
As in life, there are no guarantees in change, but you definitely can stack the odds of success in your favor by avoiding the most common pitfalls. Change is difficult, but it is not impossible, and hopefully this series has helped you think more broadly and deeply about things that can make a difference.
The more you approach change consciously and openly, and the more you get help in the right ways from the right kind of people, the more likely you are to end up making your business better and getting greater fulfilment for yourself. Of course you are going to make mistakes, of course you are going to wish you had done things differently, but we are not talking cold fusion here, just finding a way to lead a bunch of over-demanding, infuriating, self-centred, neurotic and capricious –i.e. perfectly normal – people towards a better way of doing business. It is an effort, but not a wasted one.
The effort is worth it because change is not going away. Fewer than half of the Fortune 500 companies of 1995 were still around on the 2015 list. Technologies that once existed only in the minds of movie-makers are now everyday reality. Who knows what changes the next twenty, even the next five, years will bring?
As a wise man said, the future belongs to those who prepare for it. Good luck with your organizational change.