How do you change the culture when the existing culture is one of optionality? This question has been exercising my mind recently and I thought I would share the thinking with you.
First of all, what is a culture of optionality? You might recognise the symptoms; initiatives are brought in by the organisation, people do the training, and then choose to not use the new system, follow the new approach, adhere to the new rules. Another symptom is that the organisation decides to buy all its services from one supplier, but people chose to ignore that because they prefer another supplier. Go on the training programme to ‘up-skill’ but don’t do the pre or post work? New software? Common platform? no thanks I will use my own!
To be a culture of optionality it cant just happen once though. It needs to happen every time the organisation roles something out. In addition, when you ask people they will say ‘Yes that is what happens around here’. To become cultural, it needs to be something that everyone knows about and the majority do, even if its a negative culture.
So how do you change a culture of optionality? If the problem is that everything is optional, then trying to roll out a new initiative to change the culture, becomes optional in itself!
I have asked for thoughts from people and even gone out to the twitter-verse. One thing that interested me is that a common response was ‘Trust and empowerment is the answer’. Think about it, how much more trust and empowerment can you have if people already feel empowered to do what they want anyway?But it did give me a reminder of prevalent thinking in the westernised world, which is also a clue why cultures of optionality exist everywhere and are growing in number.
Maybe we need to understand why cultures of optionality exist to understand what needs to be done to change the culture.
For everything to be optional means there are no consequences to not doing something or reward for doing something.
So the symptoms I mentioned are at the effect end of the cause and effect equation. If management does not apply a consequence to not doing anything e.g. still getting a good appraisal rating despite not following the system/process/training or there being no objective in the appraisal system that relates to using the system/process/training or still getting a good bonus despite etc etc then management is basically saying ‘that new thing is optional’. On the other side of the coin, if there is no reward the same thing happens e.g. keeping your bonus based on sales volume when you have declared that you want to focus on margins means that people will sell volume at low margin and the same applies to bringing in company values and using new system/processes etc. If you don’t connect reward to the new initiative then management is saying ‘this new thing is optional’.
To start the change from a culture of optionality to another culture requires the step of establishing expectations, setting boundaries and aligning job descriptions, appraisal systems and reward systems to match the culture you are looking for. And if needs be your performance management systems need to manage those who still refuse to be part of the culture.
Culture means ‘the way we do things around here’ and for something to be Cultural it means ‘the way we all do things around here’.
Don’t confuse a culture of trust and empowerment (which means we trust and empower you to operate within the boundaries and follow the systems, just as much as it means we trust and empower you to use your brain to make good decisions) with a culture of optionality.
Following on from my articles on how to set up your change bubble, I was asked by a leader ‘who is the most likely to burst the bubble when I’ve set it up?’
My answer to this is that the leader themselves is the biggest risk. When it comes to change, it comes down to good leadership to make it succeed and normally it’s a failure of leadership that makes it fail.
So what are your biggest risks?
1. Your own behaviors.
In organizations adopting values based cultures there are many ways to interpret the behaviors that could or should be associated with each value. For the leader this is a time where they have to be certain their natural approach fits with the ‘desired’ behaviors (so if you are thinking of following a model that suggest ‘we should all be Blue’ be very careful). Situations where your don’t match are a risk.
Even in systems changes the leader has to be careful to follow it to the letter (no special reports for the boss). If it’s right for the organisation it has to be right for you!
I once worked with an organisation that was highly focused on product quality. Every day they would issue information on product failures, near misses and product issues. They ran an culture survey that said people were not engaged with the business so they set up an culture plan, issued it and told people it was important. Then for the next 50 weeks they talked about product quality. If you say something is important, you launch a project and then you don’t mention it much, don’t be surprised if people think that you don’t think it is important. You can burst the bubble if you stop paying attention to the change for any lengthy period of time. It will survive a day, a couple of days, maybe a week, but a few weeks? A few weeks is a long time in change, so you are best to have daily attention until its embedded, working, delivering what you said it would. You need to give it your attention.
3 Giving Way
If you work in any organisation of any scale, you have to deal with politics of some sort. Things tend to happen because senior people ‘make suggestions’. Leaders are particularly susceptible to ‘suggestions’. In fact if staff were as susceptible to ‘suggestions’ from above as leaders are you wouldn’t have to go to a lot of effort to make change happen, you would just ‘suggest it’. Maybe it’s because leaders rely on the hierarchy for promotion, for bonuses etc or maybe its because leaders need to believe that people above them are right to justify the fact that that they must be right (because they are the boss), but in many circumstances I often see leaders rolling over at a simple word from a more senior leader. So if someone ‘suggests’ that you ‘tone that culture stuff down’ or that ‘zzz is not really as important as yyy’ and you ‘take it on board’ and ‘ make a few changes’ then your bubble is at risk. Staff smell politics a mile away and they will know why you’ve given way and to them it means you didn’t believe in any of it.
A colleague of mine says ‘if it’s to be, it’s got to be me’ and when it comes to change and your change bubble this is certainly the case.
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