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During Change - Culture is Everything

Updated on April 5, 2015

It has been quoted that Peter Drucker said culture eats strategy for breakfast meaning that the undercurrent of an organization’s culture should not be ignored because it is a force multiplier for good (in support of a major transformational change) or it can detract and provide insight into the resistance that the organization will put forth regarding a new change (making a new transformational change more difficult to implement successfully). The key for a change leader is to make the most of the culture that currently existing to borrow the energy from the organization’s culture to create forward momentum. Forward momentum can be created by tapping into the way the employees think, work, and behave currently. It helps if there is some element of the culture that aligns with the new transformational focus being implemented.

To help with this effort, there exists culture-related diagnostic questionnaires that really allow the employees to identify the culture that exists currently and if there are elements present such as focused on delivering results or innovative problem solving that are embedded in the organization. If so, then a skilled change leader can leverage these to the benefit of the new transformational change. If there are elements such as functional silos that exist or the “that is how we have always done it here” philosophy that prevails and yet employees don’t agree that this is how things should be done anymore…then a skilled change leader can connect the need to change with the fact that these elements of the culture need to go by the wayside in order to create the future for the organization. Both of these examples could be used to create the energy and the momentum to move forward while undergoing transformational change.

Photo taken by Stephen D. Sylvester
Photo taken by Stephen D. Sylvester | Source

The steps for change are as follows:

Create a Compelling Case for Change. This starts at the top and requires an alignment between all of the senior leaders without exception. Encouraging senior leaders to complete a team effectiveness survey will often reveal that although the senior leadership team often talks the talk calling themselves leaders and a team…they really don’t believe this when it really comes down to it. Instead, each of the senior leaders operates on their own which really prevents the organization from achieving all that the organization could. How can you line up behind a change when you, in essence, aren’t aligned at all? One suggestion has been used with some success. That is to have each of the senior leaders to present the case for change. In this way, they begin to teach what they haven’t fully invested in themselves. This allows the President of the organization to understand how far out of alignment every senior leader is and to have the needed discussions with each in order to either bring them closer in alignment or to determine who will never be able to model the way and create the case for change in a compelling fashion. Additionally, this exercise can allow the organization to work towards a case for change that can be owned by all through the efforts of negotiation and a give and take. This experience can work to transform the individuals to allow for the organizational transformation that is needed to take hold.

Photo taken by Stephen D. Sylvester
Photo taken by Stephen D. Sylvester | Source

Embed Change Agents Throughout all Levels of the Organization. A key change management step is to make sure that mid-level and frontline employees have input into the process early during the change effort. When this is done the change roll-out goes immeasurably smoother because key input is obtain from these critical stakeholders. These individuals possess a great deal of knowledge around what works and what doesn’t. This type of engagement from key employee stakeholders creates movement forward during a major change effort. These individuals act as “special forces” to instill the change within the organization from the top throughout all levels of the organization.

Connect the Emotional and the Rational Case into one Case for Change. Here it is key to not just proclaim the strategic objectives of the change but to connect with individuals emotionally as well. Having a “global presence” or “entering new markets” or “meet and beat the competition” does not get employees standing firmly beside senior leaders to make the necessary changes. But a mantra such as “we will because we can…together” which lays out the long standing tradition of penetrating the marketplace based on strong historical tradition of being successful and using “teamwork” to make it happen creates the vision that employees need that connect to their heart and to their head regarding what this change is all about.

Begin Now. Often during major change, employees are unsure of when they need to be taking the necessary steps to change. Don’t assume employees will know what to do and when. Just because there are new lines on the organizational chart indicating that the employees are reporting into someone new, doesn’t mean they are fully focused on the new change and new behaviors that they need to demonstrate in order for the change and the organization to be successful. For example, an organization seeking to escape bankruptcy and closure had a strong burning platform for change, for sure, but to take the change effort to the next level, they focused the organization on the following behaviors to increase the accountability within the organization:

1) Make decisions in hours or days rather than weeks or months and be sure keep track of decisions. For efficiency, they worked to avoid changing their minds after the decision had been documented (unless absolutely necessary which created a level of efficiency in the organization that hadn’t existed previously)

2) All employees throughout all levels of the organization spent time with stakeholders operating on the frontlines of the organization seeking input about how to improve the business (this got stakeholders throughout the company involved in the change and ensured better buy-in from all employees)

3) A primary focus was to have all levels of the organization to have routine contact with customers so that customer-centricity could be lived and embedded within the culture of the organization (this allowed employees to make better decisions with the customer clearly in mind). At meetings, a director chair inscribed with the word “customer” was visibly and prominently displayed so that as decisions were being made the focus would remain with the customer clearly in mind)

4) Employeers were not allowed to say “this is how we have always done it” (because “how we have always done it” worked against the organization ultimately driving the company into bankrupcy). This was the fastest culture creator in that people understood that how things had been done would no longer be allowed as an "excuse" to not moving forward

5) Stories about employees were told frequently to highlight that the employees are important to the organzation. Additionally, a statement was added to the job description to signify that the expectation of performance goes far beyond the job description as outlined and when employees took on more or contributed beyond their job role, they were recognized and an organizational story told about this individual’s contribution to the organization (the storytelling started with frontline employees but eventually included senior leaders as well so that everyone was asked to do more)

Because these behaviors were limited, they were able to be immediately implemented, and routinely assessed for sustainability. Because these behaviors were limited, peers could hold each other accountable, and the cultural shift happened faster and easier than the executive team had anticipated and the company avoided bankruptcy and moved through their change plan ahead of schedule. This meant success to the organization!

Other key features included: Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate. This statement is all about engagement. To fully engage employees, you have to communicate in many ways allowing the employee to receive and have messages reinforced. Examples of the different formats for communication include: conducting town halls, videos, updates in the Bi-weekly Newsletters, teleconferences/web conferences, company bulletins, and one pagers that describe each new initiative and how it is tied together.

Cultural Warriors. There are business resource groups that exist within many organizations that can be leveraged to create a type of “cultural warrior.” These individuals already act as cultural ambassadors. Ask them during the year of major or transformational change for these groups do something to help facilitate the move forward by the organization. Ex. If adaptive change, transformation, or accountability is the topics of the change, ask them to put together a forum or panel where they address one of these topics in great detail…ask them to use creativity to instill the topic of discussion.

Align Rewards and Recognition. During times of major change, there often occurs a misalignment between the new behaviors or skills needed and how employees will be rewarded, recognized, and incentivized. This should not be overlooked because it becomes a way in which individuals convince themselves that they do not need to make the necessary changes and should continue to do things the way they always have. During major transformation, there is a great opportunity to combine the “what’s in it for me” with the discussion about how individuals will be recognized and rewarded. Ex. I once heard a hospital rep say that there was no way they were going to populate an account profile with the key hours to see a group of physicians because this was their intelligence collateral and if the company had this information there would be no reason to keep them around. By merely making this statement, this individual reduced their value and significance to the organization because during this organizational change, the new skills and competencies were focused on customer centricity and the use of a new customer relationship management database asking for account plants to be created. A way to have resolved this would have been to include in the performance evaluation that there needed to be all of the key elements of the account profile completed for 90% of the accounts and failure to do so would impact 50% of their performance evaluation. Of course, it helps when one of the other behaviors identified to ensure the success of the change is collaboration and teamwork. For this one individual if they continued to take the same stance and if rewards were aligned with the new change, they would have been evaluated poorly because the rewards and recognition efforts were all aligned with the new change.

Measure Success. Too often organizations move on to the next big “thing” prior to assessing the success of the current change effort. It is absolutely critical to focus on the “lessons learned” during the change or organizational transformation. It is also critical to analyze and reassess which underscores the importance of being willing to accurately assess what is going well and what could be improved upon. Organizations that are unwilling to take the time to do this, help to breed inconsistency of implementation and execution and undermine the elements of accountability so often needed in organizations today. Change is an evolving science / art and it takes feedback, the capturing of lessons learned, and auto-correction along the way to allow an organization to get better at change both incrementally and transformationally. An organization can conduct pulse surveys or convene a simple focus group to get key stakeholders together to allow them to have input and to identify if there were areas that could be improved upon, what would they be?

The key to effective transformational change it to implement change while bringing employees along and leveraging their participation. It is also critical to have the change sustained over the long-term (or until the next transformational change is implemented) or it will seem to employees that the energy they wasted was not valued. Make sure the right message is received by the right stakeholder and be intentional with your organiation's transformational change and the organizational results desired should be achieved.

Photo taken by Stephen D. Sylvester
Photo taken by Stephen D. Sylvester
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