One of the speaking engagements that I am often invited to deliver I’ve called 'Culture change: holy grail or poison chalice?'
In it, I discuss the opposite sides of culture change, from the unbidden aspects of culture that hold us back to the potential for loss of something worth keeping by targeting a change for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way.
A few years ago a client asked me to build an opportunity to reflect and review into the delivery of this talk. Each team was asked to consider their organisational practices through the lenses I'd presented in the talk. During their playback, one team raised the organisational drive for innovation that had been put in place the year before. In taking up my challenge to consider where culture drives thinking, they had realised that the organisation had targeted innovation in the way that they always approached new initiatives. They had put in place innovation processes, review boards and an innovation flow chart to provide the rules that they wanted to apply to innovation. Unsurprisingly, they had achieved very little innovation as their highly tuned process controls had achieved what they had always done and, in doing so, the organisation had reaped the same results that they always had, and none of it was innovative.
Their bias as a group and as an organisation was towards managed risk through controlled process; this was something they were very good at but unfortunately this bias pushed them to manage everything by tightly controlled process whether it needed it or not.
The trouble with biases is they are exactly that, a bias. If you believe that something 'should' be a certain way or should be delivered in a definite way then that's your bias talking and because it's your bias you will tend to see it as the only way. The stronger your belief is, the more likely it is that you will drive to manage things to match your belief. From there it's a short step to designing process to ensure your bias is delivered by everyone, writing policy that cements it in, and even demanding accreditation or qualification that matches your perceived view of how things 'should' be. And at some point, when everything matches how you think it should be, there will be little or no room for anything that is new. Innovation becomes a 'minor adjustment' at best.
There are many things that should be delivered consistently in an organisation but a good leader will ask themselves whether all things need to be delivered with consistency and conformity. For example, in a processing unit, quality is maintained through tight controls with no room for deviation. In a call centre, however, the basics of customer service are laid down as a consistent process but good service is delivered through one human being using their relationship skills to help another as opposed to following a uniform process. Does an engineer imagine multiple ways of delivering a new design or do they follow a laid down process? These are just a few examples that show there is a spectrum that runs between total conformity and chaotic imagineering; a spectrum that the manager defines.
In essence, as a manager you decide what really needs to be managed with conformity and where flexible thinking could benefit the organisation’s strategic objectives. One requires tight controls and the other needs inspirational leadership to release potential. To provide this level of leadership takes an awareness of your own biases. For example, If you tend towards perfection you may, on your own, create perfect results (but probably not within time and budget!) but as a manager this may translate into thinking that there is a 'right way that things should be done'. Checking in on those words 'right' and 'should', then testing yourself to see if its just your biases talking, may help your team to achieve a result that you couldn't imagine on your own. At the other end of the scale, you may be a creative and innovative thinker who does not like to be pinned down. In this case, you may avoid conformity like the plague and feel that better results will 'always' come from free thinking, which of course they don't in all circumstances.
All of this comes down to understanding your own value structure which is the core of your thinking process. Different from the behavioural styles that many of us have come to understand through DISC, MBTI and TMS (which represent how you do what you do), your value structure is the core of your thinking itself and drives the choices you make which in turn result in your actions (delivered through the aforementioned behavioural style). Inherent in your value structure are your biases, many of which will be unconscious for you. As a leader they will drive how you lead and how you lead will drive the organisation that you are the custodian of.
The inventiveness of your organisation is let loose or constrained by every action you take and every decision you make so choose the time and place for conformity or innovation based on the organisational need, not your unconscious bias.
Anyone who is familiar with John Kotters’ definition of leadership will know leaders make changes – whereas managers maintain stability. The struggle to do both is the daily balancing act of any senior executive.
But, the bigger challenge is the defining of change in the first place.
Many leaders are employed primarily to make change happen. Words like ‘improve’, ‘efficiencies’, ‘growth’ and ‘competitiveness’ litter the job descriptions of C-suite roles. Many are tested for their vision and those known to have this skill are often paid more on the REM circuit.
They’re expected to march in, ‘rally the troops’, point them towards the ‘brave new world’ and take them there. Moses, Caeser and Alexander the Great all rolled in to one.
Yet we all know that change fails when the employees:
Don’t embrace the vision
Don’t share the direction
Don’t ‘buy-in’ to our new plans.
We talk about change resistance, how to engage with the vision, generate buy-in and teach leaders to go out there and do it. And when we say, “go out there and do it,” what we really mean is, “do it to them,” with “them” meaning ‘the staff’.
Persuade, convince, cajole and ultimately ‘help people off the bus’ if they don’t want to be on it. Everyone knows what’s coming, so if you want security you’d better look like this is the bus for you. After all, we’ve also learned that if you hang around long enough, the bus will change.
C-suites come and go – and the next one will want a blue bus anyway (as opposed to the green one we are jumping on now).
We employ for a vision, reward for a vision and then push that vision out there…and that’s the skill of leadership.
But is it really?
Imagine a leader who had no vision for the business. Would you employ them? No.
So, what about a leader who had no personal vision for the business, but believed the people in it did. Would you employ them? “Maybe,” I’m sure you would say. But something is still missing.
What about the leader who believed the organisation could be smarter, faster, more creative and agile – and that the people within in knew how to unlock such potential if he worked with them?
A leader whose tools were not visioning, but engagement?
A leader who stayed open to approaches that were not his – and whose only vision was one which everyone shared in?
A leader who listened not in judgement, but in interest?
The hardest change of all is where we let go of the certainty of our own vision and instead, engage with others to create a vision that is more sophisticated…because it is owned by many.
There are many aspects to change, and more importantly successful change. There are no perfect or right ways to go about change, but there are many wrong ways and many pitfalls and hurdles. Any change model will inevitably try to bring simplicity to the complexity that is change. It is this complexity that makes change an exciting and dynamic topic to study. It is this complexity that makes the practice of change management a stressful time for many managers and employees alike.
The key requirement of change managers is flexibility and adaptability. Listening is paramount, empathy is key. Self-awareness is the start point for any manager whilst awareness of the organisation and the people within it is vital. The change manager must have executive leadership competencies mixed with the human understanding of the best H.R director. The change manager will often be a bridge between many layers of the organisation, between managers and the unions, and frequently the company and it’s reputation.
Having said that there is no clear model, change is not anarchy, or that change has no steps that a manager can follow. There are many things that need done in any change programme. The key for the manager is the way that they are done and the spirit in which they are implemented (dynamically vs. slavishly; openly or secretive for example).
I believe that there are two legs to a change programme; the “Human” leg and the “Process” leg. The two legs must remain in balance, or the programme will quickly fall down. Both need direction to function. Both need to be going in the same direction at the same pace. Both need to be applied with the same commitment.
A good change agent must recognise and manage both legs of the programme in a balanced way to get the benefit of the organisation’s efforts. Many change managers and change gurus put their faith in well organised plans and many books exist that give guidance on this approach. Planning is essential in a change programme, however I see planning as a tool to bring together a number of processes from risk analysis to re-engineering to customer needs analysis, process mapping, benchmarking and transition management rather then the key to change itself. Culture change is a prime example. You can plan all you want, but if you don’t understand the human leg you won’t get to the hearts minds that make up the culture.
The key starting element of any change programme is to identify the need for change. The need for change is the rationale or “WHY” that creates urgency and belief within the organisation. It must be factual and believable and make clear the cost of not changing as much as the benefits of change. The leadership of the organisation needs to be fully versed in the “WHY” to be able to face the challenges that will come from within the organisation. Once the “WHY” is clear, it is necessary to have clarity of “DIRECTION”. Without clarity of direction, employees will choose different paths to solve the “WHY”. Each path may be perfectly acceptable, but the power of the organisation can only be harnessed if everyone walks in the same direction. It is necessary to differentiate direction from “THE ANSWER” at this point. Where we are going is different from how we will get there. Once the “WHY” and the “DIRECTION” are known, a “VISION” can be articulated. This vision must be shared across the organisation or it will be worthless. The “VISION” should be simple, memorable, easily understood and have meaning to the employees as people. From there the real work begins as you create a “climate for change”. By communicating these key elements and explaining the challenge to your people you will create a desire to move amongst the employees, who will understand what is expected of them and can see that they need to perform their roles differently to achieve the vision. This desire for change is necessary to turn change from something to fear and something that is happening to you to something that you are part of and can influence. Communication is one of the most vital processes to create this desire for change.
Communication is everything
Good communication is the cornerstone of any change programme. With communication comes understanding. Communication shows respect for your people, and if done well gives them a part to play in the process. Communication is the greatest reducer of fear of change in your toolbox. Lack of communication just fuels worry.Good change communication is honest, consistent, and regular, which seems really obvious but rarely achieved. There are a number of key actions and values necessary for good communication to work.
The 3 R's
REGULAR. A regular flow of information will help people feel involved and ease fears that come with a feeling of “not knowing what is happening”. Without continual change you will always be persuading people to “buy in” to a decision. Our preffered approach takes your people on a journey with you, so that they understand the decisions you make, thereby reducing resistance.
REPETITIVE. Key messages must be used routinely and frequently. Employees will not believe you if you keep changing your mind. They will believe you if you keep stressing the key messages. Find the key messages and stick to them! We know that this is hard for the intelligent leader (after all coming up with new ideas is what you are there for!)
FEEDBACK. Processes that allow people to ask questions, give ideas, pass comment etc ensure that employees feel involved. Being involved reduces fear and galvanises the organisation in pursuit of the desired outcomes of change.
OPEN. Keep people informed about what is happening. Don’t just wait until you have the answers. Let people know what is happening to get to the answers. The fact that they know something is being done will alleviate fears.
HONEST. Tell the truth. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know. If you have not made a decision, tell them what you will do to get to that decision. Hiding the truth builds distrust, and shows that you do not respect the employees.
At a client meeting once I heard words that I think I’ve heard a thousand times over the last decade. “They need to change” said the GM, who then went on to dissect the performance of his workforce who were “stuck in the past”, “resistant to new ideas”, and “unwilling to go that extra mile”. He then outlined for me the change programme that had been put in place over the last year, which was inevitably failing due their “intransigence”.
Very few changes start at the bottom of the tree. The Russian revolution aside, history shows that changes are made by people in a position to make them. The top of the tree. The ideas for change come from the top and so they should. That’s what the organisation’s leadership is for; to provide direction and business clarity, to analyse the trends and meet them with innovation.
So it is only natural to look down from the top of the organisation and conceive of the new ideas that those at the bottom should be implementing. By and large leadership is what workforces expect of leaders, and while many people are initially resistant of the idea of change, most workforces I have met understand that the company has to make changes to keep ahead of, or in touch with, the competition.
The trouble with looking down from the top to the bottom is the bottom is looking up at you. “We need to change” is your rallying cry. But the “we” often falls short when it comes to “I” And the bottom notices this and knows you don’t mean “we” at all.
With this thought in mind I asked the GM what the change programme had incorporated for the leadership of the organisation. Aside from a few shuffles of position under the banner of restructuring, the same leaders were in the top positions doing roughly the same things. Yet the workforce had to change its behaviours and its attitudes and align to a new set of values.
It brought to mind a quote that we use on our business cards. Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”, which I think is great guidance for CEO’s and GM’s leading change in their organisation. “What am I doing now that is not in support of the changes I need? “What behaviour do we need to adopt at the top to engender the change throughout the organisation?” and “What demands am I making that are counter-cultural or change destructive”
Change starts at the top, not just with an idea but with demonstration.
Many years ago I worked in a business that was implementing a spending freeze in line with its bottom line focus. To make a major statement it was announced that all business travel was to be stopped completely. The immediate impact was great. Throughout the organisation people got the message, and started to consider little ways that they could tighten the belts in their area. A week later a small announcement followed to say that the travel ban had been modified and that people of a certain grade and above would be continuing to travel first class. The message was immediately lost. The belief in the business took a step back. People gave lip service to the profit drive. Why? Everyone knew that a total travel ban would not work. Some people had to travel as part of their job. Destination dependent would have been acceptable. Role dependent and business class for long distant would have made sense. But grade dependent? And still first class?
The message was “the change is not about us, it’s about you”. That one message destroyed all the good intent of the profit drive and impacted on change programmes for years to come, as it installed suspicion and cynicism of the leadership group.
Many years ago I read a book by Chris Argyris, called “Overcoming organisational defences”. It was in my early years as a change agent and trouble-shooter of change failures. It made me really aware of the unwritten rules that propagate the business and run counter to the change you are trying to make. A favourite of mine, came when I was working with a business that was streamlining its management information systems and as a result reducing the number of people in its accounts department. The initiative was founded on good I.T and should have worked but it didn’t.
I follow my nose in these things and asked the people on the ground what they were doing and where their time was going. In the course of one discussion I noticed some piles of papers on one employee’s desk. They didn’t look like the standardised, cost effective reports I had been shown by the head of IT. I asked about them. “Oh, they are for the CEO and the Chairman”, I was told. These “special” reports were being hand created to mach a report that he CEO had used in the past. It turned out that a number of senior people also had their own “special reports”
The change was not about these senior people, in their minds so in a few simple requests they were wasting the vast spend of the I.T project and ensured that the head of accounts could not cut to the numbers that had been part of the project justification.
And of course the workforce saw and the workforce lost belief.
My advice? Remember Ghandi, and before you say that your workforce is resistant to change, ask yourself “What do I need to do differently? “What behaviour do I need to have” and “What counter-cultural demands do I make?” and be the “change you want to see in your world”