Tip #21: For Culture Change: Choose Your Battles Wisely!

Jan 23, 2012 1 Comment by

I love college basketball. My favorite team is my alma mater, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. Coach Bruce Weber’s over-achievers had just clawed their way into the Top 25 this past week only to lose to a feisty Penn State squad.

While the loss was tough for me to watch, I did hear a very refreshing change-related anecdote during the game.

New Penn State coach Pat Chambers had shared with the broadcasters that when he took over the team earlier this year they were badly in need of a culture transplant. He felt that the team had tolerated bad habits and poor results – so his first order of business was to turn the entire attitude of the program around.  Wins would come, he reasoned, if the Nittany Lions first built a winning culture.

How does a leader turn around an entire culture?

Where do you even start?

This coach’s answer to the challenge really got my attention.

He chose to focus on one element first. Even though his team had an anemic offense and a porous defense, he wouldn’t focus first on shooting, passing, defensive schemes or even free throws.

Instead he choose the cultural element called “hustle”. To this point, after an early exhibition game, he was asked how he felt his team had performed in the areas that mattered most to victory. He replied:

“Every coach has hustle markers; we want to be around 14 ___’s  a game,”

Chambers went on.

“We had 13 this week in practice, so I knew we could get there.”

14 Points in the Paint?
… No.
14 Offensive Rebounds?
… No.
14 Blocks, steals or forced turnovers?
… No.   No.   And No.

The number he was looking for was 14 “dives“.

The metric the coach had been counting was how many times during the game his players dove across the floor for loose balls.  That single metric would reveal to him whether his squad was making  progress in turning around the missing hustle element of Penn State basketball culture.

Change Agents should consider taking this same prioritization approach when attempting to make significant changes to their organization’s culture. Avoid trying to fix everything at once. Spend some time observing which fundamental elements of the culture are most lacking and pick one or two to start the turn-around effort.

I’ve been embedded in over 100 organizations over the years, and I’ve witnessed a long list of cultural elements that have impacted these companies in wonderfully positive ways – and an equally long list of destructive cultural indicators.

Join The Culture Club: I’ve accumulated a long, scary list of cultural elements that can contribute to groups struggling. I can sometimes get a good read on which elements are causing the most negative impact after spending just a short period of time embedded in the organization. Just for kicks… How many of these negative cultural factors have you witnessed in your organization(s)?

  • Information hiding.
  • Valuing heroic efforts over team results.
  • Operating units working in silos.
  • Little appreciation for employee contributions.
  • Highly political decision-making processes.
  • Lack of accountability across the board.
  • Lack of a shared, compelling organizational vision.
  • Lack of focus – everything is priority-1.
  • Lack of focus – nothing has enough priority to get traction.
  • Few clearly-defined goals.
  • Limited measurement of results.
  • No reward for risk-taking.
  • Punishment for sticking one’s neck out.
  • Tolerance of ineffective interpersonal behavior.
  • Poor time management (like allowing meetings to drift & accomplish nothing).
  • Fear of sharing “bad news”.
  • No sense of urgency.
  • An ever-present sense of panic.
  • A lack of trust between employees and management.
  • Limited opportunities for dialogue between “layers” of the organization.
  • Gaping holes in communication.
  • Willingness to overlook poor quality.
  • Habit of ignoring competing priorities until it’s too late.
  • Lack of positive reinforcement.
  • … and the list could go on and on…

Over the next few posts, I’d like to share some effective techniques for influencing cultural change within organizations.  I’ll be honest, I have not yet discovered a magic formula for cultural change.

A friend once shared this gem regarding cultural change consulting:

“Anyone who says organizational culture change can be done easily is either peddling a book or trying to sell you consulting services… or they’re offering free advice that’s worth every penny you pay for it.”

So I’ll avoid trying to make this sound simple or fool-proof. I’ll just share some things that have worked for me and some of my clients.

Time will tell if Coach Chambers will be successful in turning around years of Nittany Lion basketball futility. But he’s started the process where effective Change Agents should start when they strive to improve their organization’s culture: by focusing on one or two priority elements at a time.

Pardon me if I root for him to do well against everyone except Illinois.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What elements of culture are missing from my list? Drop a comment into the discussion by hitting <reply> below.
  2. Coach Chambers has quite a bit of control of his team’s culture. What can a Change Agent do to improve an organization’s culture if they’re not “the boss”?

Editorial Note:

This article was written over the weekend – prior to the passing of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

I wish to express my condolenceses to the Paterno family and the Penn State community.

Incoming search terms:

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

About the author

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

One Response to “Tip #21: For Culture Change: Choose Your Battles Wisely!”

  1. Gary says:

    2011 success of 49ers with positive leadership/culture change and few signifigant personnel changes is a prime example too

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