How do you change the culture when the existing culture is one of optionality? This question has been exercising my mind again 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.
Ask yourself these questions if you are CEO and have a change programme under-way. They might help you get unstuck before you realise that you are stuck.
A. How is the change progressing?
B. How engaged are your people in the change?
C. If asked how many people could explain the culture change initiatives?
D. Talking about communicating, how often do you update everyone on the progress of change?
E. How are you measuring the change?
F. Who is responsible for your culture change?
G.How seriously are you taking this culture change
For some time, I’ve been buried deep in initiatives for four big clients. All are different projects and outcomes with one consistency between them being that they involve culture change. Whatever the culture change is focused on, I know that if the leadership doesn’t engage well, we have a risk of reduced impact at other levels of the organisation. I’m not saying no impact as I am a big proponent of culture change being a virus that can be encouraged despite lack of leadership, but in most cases, if the leaders don’t buy in, then the staff will be reluctant to engage.
Not all of these projects have a major training element, but all have some ‘new tool or approach’ for people to get their head round. Personally, I still find that humans engage in culture change with and through other humans rather than e-mechanisms as you can’t catch enthusiasm or talk through concerns with a computer (yet), so inevitably all our projects have workshop sessions of some type.
In planning these, I have sought to engage leadership so they take some degree of ownership of how we conduct these, and how leaders engage in the process. As a result, we have routinely come up against different views to the same question regarding whether leaders should be in the same ‘introductory’ sessions as their teams. I’ve noticed a number of clear positions taken which I think are a reflection on the individual leader that may have clear impact on the change initiative.
The ‘My team can say anything in front of me’ position
In this perspective, the leader is often opting to live in a place of the culture we are aiming for rather than the culture we may have today. The risk here is that people are not given the right to go on the change journey by asking questions of the facilitator and coming to their own conclusions.
The other version of this perspective is that some believe that to be the case in the here and now, as in thinking that their staff can be 100% full and frank with them. The risk here is twofold i.e. what if the leader is deluding themselves as they can’t see where staff are not being 100% frank with them and secondly, the change is a ‘new thing’ and often new things reset the environment a little while people check in to see if they can engage in the way they would expect to, so the manager runs the risk that the reset goes wrong.
Of course they may be right and that’s great, but you have to be really well informed to know.
The ‘I want to be there to steer the discussion’ position
As I facilitator of change, I’ve learned that this is not normally a judgement about me and my team and our ability to facilitate to the objective we have set, or to handle all of the questions and concerns that are raised. I mean, you do know that’s why you brought us in?
Normally this is an indication of the leaders comfort with the whole programme. It often means they haven’t heard what they need to get clarity on what it means for them. It can sometimes mean they feel the process is negating their leadership, which can sometimes happen in large scale corporate roll outs.
Now and again it’s about their comfort as a leader, their willingness to let go of the reins of control and once in a blue moon, they are concerned about what their team might say about them and their behaviour. The risks here are that the leader is present for the wrong reasons and they block the opportunity that staff have to engage and understand the way they need to buy in. The secondary risk is that in the workplace, the leaders need to control might diminish the possibilities of the change once they leave the session.
The ‘leaders are different and need special attention’ position
This can be seen as only one step removed from ‘I’m so senior I don’t need to attend these things’, but watch out as there are layers to this one. Some senior people do think they need special treatment just because of their position, which in the modern world is a cultural anachronism that you’ve just got to deal with. But often when this comes up, it’s the leader asking for a safe space to explore the topic so they don’t look foolish at worst or ill informed at best when in front of their people. When the workshops have a degree of ‘try it and see’ to the new tool or approach, I have real sympathy for their worry, because they are not going to feel comfortable trying something they are unsure of in front of staff. I would just rather they were honest about it than covering it up as that way my team are best placed to support them in the session (yes that too is what we are there for).
The ‘give staff a safe space to engage’ position
Many leaders recognise there are times that staff need to have the right to query and challenge the initiative to understand it, and that having the boss there gets in the way as they don’t want to say it in front of them. You don’t need to be a bad boss for this to be the case, as I’ve had people keeping quiet because they don’t want to let their manager down. But remember, it’s change, and in change people need to check the shifting grounds of what is safe and what isn’t.
In situations where there is a ‘try it’ element to the workshop, not all staff want to find themselves sitting opposite a manager as they have a go at something for the first time any more than some leaders don’t want to look bad in front of staff. In exploring this approach amongst leaders, someone often challenges it with the argument of ‘surely openness is where we want to get to, so why not start as we mean to go on’ which leads us back to the first example, and whether the change is a journey to go on or something you have decided ‘everyone needs to leap into, or get off the bus’.
Overall, I don’t really want to argue the merits and demerits of each position but raise the key points that I feel often get ignored in the discussion:
Culture change is a special kind of change, so as a leader make sure you are challenging your own preferences so you don’t make your first step a misstep.
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”
theCHANGEfactor™ brand was established in 1999 in the UK by Martin Fenwick. Prior to coming to New Zealand this resulted in projects in Belgium, Germany and France as well as throughout the UK.