I have often blogged about the need for being planful when it comes to change. Of course those that know my approach to plans’ also know that I look upon a culture change plan as a guide rather than a set of hard and fast rules. This is because I know that when it comes to culture change you are constantly testing the mood of the organisation, seeking feedback, and generally working with what you have in front of you. In the case of culture change your plan will be constantly updated as you learn what worked, what the organisation responded to and of course as the culture begins to change, that in itself will mean that the way you work with the organisation begins to change.
Lets play that last part through again and expand on it. When you begin to engage with your organisation about a change in culture you will inevitably engage in a way that works at that time. If you don’t engage in a culturally appropriate way then it is likely that your people will not grasp the message that you are trying to convey. So for example if you have a very formal organisation with a lot of top down and you want to change to a more flexible organisation with less hierarchy it may seem appropriate to engage with them in a style that matches that flexible ideal doesn’t it? But that wont work for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if your people are used to formal announcements and you decide to wander round and have casual chats they will see that you are having casual chats and wont see that you are announcing change: because thats not the way that ‘things are done around here’ (which is the simple definition of culture). Secondly, you don’t truly know what a ‘flexible’ culture will mean yet. You may have some ideas and you may think you know what you want, but once you start to engage your organisation in a new idea of culture you cannot be 100% sure what shape that ideal will take in reality. This means that if you say ‘this is how it is going to be from now on’ and you find a couple of months later that its not working then you aren’t going to look good. This means that you start by engaging in a way that works at the time, but make it clear that this is not what you are looking for in the future ( a perfect way to initiate a change in culture is to hold up the now and say this is not what you want). You engage people in the idea of the culture before the reality of the culture (Unless you are a dictator and we’ve explored that theme before).
As your culture change programme roles out you will then begin to engage in more and more ‘flexible’ ways if flexibility is the theme of your culture change. You will be learning what flexibility means for your business and re-defining it on a day to day basis. You will be engaging with ideas from your people, many of whom will have some great insights into what they need from you in a ‘flexible culture’.If you aren’t then you are not being flexible!
One of the tests that I suggest to my clients is to constantly ask themselves if the new process, new approach, new system, communication etc is in line with their proposed ‘vision’ and ‘culture’. By constantly testing how you do things, you keep your culture change intentions top of mind, but also you are ensuring that the current reality doesn’t stay that way by accident and habit.
Culture change is best seen as a journey, so treat your plan as a road map that is changing and learning as you and your people are.
I’ve written before about the need to engage your people early in the change programme. The need to create momentum through involvement and engagement is also a well established practice. This simple rule of ‘engage and involve early’ works particularly well if the organisation knows it needs change and has an energetic and engaged population. But what if they aren’t? What if your people have had such a long period of stagnation that they think their current reality is normal. What if people are short on ideas and energy.
What if your organisation has lost it’s mojo?
Many organisations become skeptical of change and their leader needs to re-build trust ensuring that this time the change will happen and will deliver what it promises. Teams in this environment will often participate in the debate about what needs to change and have ideas about how to improve the organisation but will do so with a large degree of skepticism. In this case the leader can engage in debate and involve the organisation in the ‘how’ if they have a determination to follow through and make the outcomes happen. In effect they are tapping in to ideas and energy that the last leader didn’t tap in to.
But an organisation that has been doing things the same way for so long that the majority aren’t able to see the need for change and can’t see past the existing way of doing things, requires a different approach. The question is ‘what approach?’
Does the leader not only flesh out the vision but bring to the table how it is accomplished? With all the risks that a ‘one man crusade’ has?
Do you ‘have a clear out’ and bring in fresh blood? An approach favoured by many but with inherent risks. (lost knowledge, commitment of those remaining, mood of the organisation etc)
Do you seek out the few who do aspire to something better and create your guiding coalition from those voices? The risk if they are not current managers, the potential for alienation by their colleagues, their managers and the pressure to conform is obvious here.
So what’s the answer? Well as always in change there is no one route. Everything is contextual to the situation you find yourself in as a leader. The answer will likely rest in a combination of all three, at least:
The new leader will certainly have to signal change, and be ready for that to be met with resounding silence at best and outright rejection at worst. Be ready to be on your own here!
Assessment of the key post-holders in leadership positions, how invested they are in the current reality versus their willingness to come on a different journey, along with their capability of operating within the new vision, will mean that new blood may be required in key areas that are the drivers of change.
Involve those with potential in the redesign and give them roles where they have an opportunity to influence and explain to others. It doesn’t matter where they sit in the organisations hierarchy, if they influence those around them then they are gradually going to build a tipping point with you.
Of course you will have to give those who are dead set against the change a chance to get off the bus, whatever level they sit at. Some may self select by request and some by action. If this is managed well by the new leader with empathy and respect then the rest of the organisation, those who want to come along, will appreciate your actions.
Most importantly prepare for this being a long haul journey, with a lot of hard decisions and lonely days before you start to see results.
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