Tip#22: Get a Grip on Culture Change

Feb 20, 2012 No Comments by

You say you want to change your organization’s culture?

Get a Grip!

To be more specific, get a good grip on what your trying to do before you start this challenging climb, or you may run the risk of suffering the kind of significant fall that can make your next attempted change even harder.

In my last post, I introduced the idea that difficult cultural change can be made easier if Change Agents focus on a few priority improvements at a time.  Pick one or two things to focus on based upon what you think will have the greatest positive impact.

I’ll assume for purposes of this article that you’ve chosen one or two detrimental elements or behaviors you’d like to change within your culture. Once you’ve made this distinction, you’re ready for the next step of the cultural change process: analysis.

How to Get a Grip. Cultural changes can be quite disruptive, and as I recommend for any significant change, it can really help to break down this early work into smaller, executable steps. To initiate a valid analysis of a cultural change, I usually follow this five-step approach:

  1. Observe the negative cultural element.
  2. Quantify the negative impacts.
  3. Verify your observations.
  4. Define long-term success.
  5. Define incremental success.

As I describe each step, I will use an example drawn from the list of “fixable” cultural change problems that I articulated in my last post.

Let’s start the process by getting a better idea of the exact nature of the negative cultural elements you’ve chosen to work on.

Step 1: See What You See: Start by observing the negative element you’ve chosen to focus on within your current culture.  For illustration, I’ll use an example. If my chosen cultural change is to get my people to make better use of their time in meetings, I can easily observe how they spend time in meetings today.

I could ask questions like:

  • Do we drive for results in meetings by following a purposeful agenda based on up-front expectations?
  • Do we spend an inordinate amount of time socializing?
  • Do we allow bullies to dominate the conversation?
  • Do we end meetings without valid consensus on the big decisions they were supposed to address?

As you start collecting the answers to your questions, you’ll develop a solid read on how widespread the cultural problem really is.

The great Greek mathematician Archimedes once said that he could lift the entire world if he only had a long enough lever… Gather valid impact data to get leverage with your stakeholders before you attempt culture change!

Step 2: See What You Get.  Step Two of the process is to take a good hard look at the results you’re getting based on your current tolerance of the negative cultural element. Research the impact on your organization’s bottom-line numbers as well as the intangible impacts.

For illustration, I’ll use the example of an organization (of any size) with no clearly-defined vision. What bottom-line business metrics may be influenced by this lack of focus?

On the hard-number side you could ask questions like:

  • Does a lack of vision cause some team members to be unsure of what their daily work priorities should be?
  • Does confusion or indifference result in expensive duplication of effort?
  • Do we have multiple tools/systems addressing the same function because it’s not clear that retiring legacy tools/systems is important to the organization?

If your case for addressing the negative element is valid, the tangible results will add up quickly.  You could also look for intangible results like poor morale, absenteeism or a lack of volunteer effort.  Another intangible cost of a lack of vision might be a noticeable hesitance around risk-taking – which eventually kills innovation.

The Bottom Line About Bottom Lines: Collect as much data as you can on the ledger sheet of tangible and intangible cultural impacts. Think of cultural impact measurement as a way to take the vital signs of your organization.  The observations and the data will give you insight about the “diseases” and potential “cures”.  Each factual measure will also bolster your case when it comes to winning over converts down-stream.

Step 3: Trust But Verify. Once you feel you have a clear idea of the negative impact your chosen cultural element is having, circle back with your peers and a few other key stakeholders.  Ask them if they see the same things you see.  Have them verify (and possibly add to) your list of negative impacts. Let them help you brainstorm potential ways to address the need for cultural change.

Chop-Chop: When I was a child, my father used to do a lot of wood work around our family farm. In this context, he taught me a great old adage when it comes to carpentry:

“Measure twice. Cut once.”

That sums up this step in the process… Make sure your grip on the cultural facts is strong enough to survive the expected questioning that make come later. Don;t be afraid to measure twice if you need to. Jumping the gun on a false cultural reading can introduce other problems. If your premise for cultural change isn’t valid, be ready to work on fixing something else.

Step 4: Describe a Positive Future. As you involve others in the planning for your upcoming cultural change, people will probably ask questions like: “If our culture is so messed up, what would it look like if we can fix it?”

They’re asking you to cast a vision for a better, more effective culture in the future. Step up with clarity and simplicity.

For example, if your ultimate cultural change goal is to have people openly expressing their opinions as a part of a fully-engaged dialogue, step up and say that!

Describe the difference between open dialogue and a lack of true dialogue. Demonstrate this approach in your conversations. Describe how you’d like to see people honestly share their opinions without being offensive or over-bearing. Insist that conversations focus on issues and not on people.

Be crisp. Be clear. Be positive and unyielding with your description of the desired future state for the cultural element you’ve chosen to address. Anything less than clarity will leave too much “wiggle room” for team members to interpret your expectation and this may give them permission to ignore your goal.

Step 5: Define Baby Steps. The fifth and final step of this initial planning process for culture change is to define intermediate goals.  Since culture change may take a long time, how will you be able to keep people engaged? How will you be able to tell if you’re making progress?

For example, if fact-based dialogue is your target for cultural improvement, identify what short-term trends you will be watching for in that regard.

In the movie “What About Bob?”, Bill Murray’s character learned a lot about taking Baby Steps from a book by the same name. The author (played by Richard Dreyfuss) started to question his own psychological theories once he saw them put into practice!

I worked with one client who had exactly that culture change goal. We could tell we were making intermediate progress when we noticed that the overwhelming number of conversations started to be about issues and facts instead of personalities. We knew we were on the right track when we heard more talk about real issues and fewer conversations about people. In general we started to spend less time complaining about each other and ineffective interpersonal situations.

Culture Change is Hard! So far, I’ve suggested that it can be daunting enough to address the highest priority problems within your culture without taking on the world.

So start by focusing on one or two high-priority areas of focus, then get a grip on how you can approach these changes by gathering the facts and verifying the impacts.

Do the analysis and use the data to guide the next step: planning. In my next post I’ll address how to get the ball rolling on a practical plan for making your cultural change happen.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What can go wrong if you observe a potentially negative element within your culture and take immediate action to “fix it” without first verifying your observations?
  2. Have you been a part of a wholesale culture change that needed to be done in one fell swoop -not in the incremental way that I’ve described here?
  3. Share your story by using the comment link below and be a part of a future post on theBigRocks of Change blog.

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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