Culture Change Tip #24: Culture Change Is Hard Work!

Mar 10, 2012 No Comments by

Changing your organization’s culture is a lot like recovering from an injury. Neither situation tends to get better on its own. It takes accurate diagnosis, the right prescription for recovery and diligent follow-through by both the healer and the patient.

Meet My Doc: Doctor Patrick Osgood is a fantastic Orthopedic Surgeon with North Tahoe Orthopedics in Truckee, California.  I’ve met with him three times over the past month to get help recovering from a torn quadriceps tendon.

In our first appointment Dr. Osgood did a thorough exam and a series of tests to isolate the problem. It looked serious enough to order an MRI to validate his preliminary diagnosis. In our second appointment, he used the MRI data to sharpen his diagnosis and order a rehabilitation regime of physical therapy. (I was especially happy that he advised against surgery!) I had my third appointment with Dr. Osgood just the other day… but more about that in a minute.

<- Meet Joe Dengler.

Joe’s an amazing Physical Therapist with the Tahoe Center for Health and Sports Performance, which is also in Truckee. He and the staff there work with world-class athletes (and regular folks) in the North Lake Tahoe area to help them get back on track after injuries.

Joe received my rehab order from Dr. Osgood and he’s worked with me over the course of several sessions to rehabilitate my quad so I can get back to activities like running, softball and skiing.

Just as important as the work we did in the gym was the “homework” Joe assigned for me to do on my own. He set me up for success by assigning specific exercises to rebuild my strength and flexibility.

So what does my busted leg have to do with implementing culture change?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

So far in this series, we’ve addressed focusing your culture change and planning for it. Today we’ll look at executing the change. With a nod to my recent quad-rehab experience, here are a few execution tips for change agents:

1. Trust Your Diagnosis: There are tons of good books and articles on the subject of culture change, but sometimes it helps to engage real experts to validate your approach. All I knew about my injury was the pain I could feel and the research I had dug up on the internet about what might be causing it. Doctor Osgood used his knowledge, skill, years of experience and clinical data like the MRI to nail the diagnosis.

If they can swing it, Cultural Change Agents should consider engaging experts in diagnosing, planning and executing their changes – as long as they remember that ultimately, no external consultant will own the culture change.

2. Assign Some Homework: Stakeholders – like patients in rehab – achieve better results when they share in the ownership for success. All the hard work that went into preparing for your culture change may go for naught if you don’t engage the grass roots of your organization in the effort.

For example, if your proposed change was to generate more effective cross-team communication, instead of just dumping a gym bag full of communication tools and new rules at their feet and walking away, you may want to assign a bit of homework to strengthen their communication analysis and execution muscles:

Assigning homework to your stakeholders should go a bit beyond "Do a few of these and call me in the morning."

  • Ask team members to watch for problems which may have had their genesis in poor communication.
  • Have folks triage communication issues to identify alternative approaches that might work better next time.
  • Set an expectation that they should gather meaningful feedback to verify messages are getting through.
  • Offer opportunities for them to recognize each other for shared success stories that resulted from great cross-team communication.
  • …and so forth…

As I mentioned earlier, try not to overload people with too much homework or they may get frustrated and abandon the change.

Joe also assigned exercises that fit with the stage of my recovery. Some of the early exercises Joe suggested didn’t seem like exercise at all. Like applying ice after a heavy workout or wearing a light compression wrap. As my muscles healed, he had me doing leg presses and more aggressive stuff. The same concept applies to those involved in your culture change. Watch to make sure they are able to handle the new things you are asking them to do.

3. Pace Yourself!  Joe told me the other day that studies indicate typical physical therapy patients can only handle 2-3 new exercises per session. Any more than three and they tend to forget the technique or get frustrated. So he didn’t overload my brain with 15 new things for me to do after the first rehab session. He spread out the introduction of new exercises at a max rate of 3 or 4 per session.

Joe may have pushed this guy a little too hard. Ya think?

He also based his homework choices on what I could handle. In the first session, I had lots of swelling and limited range of motion, so we focused on riding a stationary bike, regaining my balance and other things my quad could tolerate.

By the last session he had me jumping on and off of 14-inch boxes, aggressively stretching my quad “into the pain“, hopping across the gym like a rabbit and simulating the balanced lunges of a cross-country skier.

As a Change Agent, you may be tempted to try and change everything about the negative culture at once or do one big fix. I’d caution that too much culture change can leave your stakeholders confused and threatened. Help them “eat the elephant one bite at a time” by sticking to a few simple changes until you start to see solid results.

4. You Get What You Measure.  Doctor Osgood evaluated my injured quad during each of our three appointments and looked for positive changes. He let me know that things were progressing well based on tangible evidence. Joe tracked the progress of my rehab using subjective measures like “pain level” and objective measures like “105 degrees of knee flexibility”.

Change Agents should circle back throughout the course of the change process and measure whether the new behavior looks like its going to “stick”. Some measures will be objective like meetings finishing on time or customer satisfaction numbers going up. Others may be more subjective like noticing that people are spending more time focused on fact-based problem solving and less time complaining about each other personally or acting out politically.

Recognize people as they demonstrate positive cultural change and follow up on any gaps you discover. In each case, the task of measurement belongs to you as a Change Agent.

5. Get Back in the Game! I had my final appointment with Doctor Osgood this past Thursday. He did one final review of my injury and determined that I was well on my way to a full recovery. Several factors contributed to this positive outcome:

  • Having been in in reasonable good health prior to the injury.
  • An accurate diagnosis after the injury.
  • An expertly-tailored therapy regimen.
  • Patient follow-through on the “homework”.

The same list may apply to the work of Cultural Change Agents. Re-establishing a healthy culture takes:

  • A solid understanding of the current culture and what positives can be leveraged.
  • An accurate diagnosis that focuses on the cultural problem we want to address.
  • Diligent follow-through on executing the work of the change.
  • Members of the culture playing an active role in owning the change.

I’ve found that Change Agents who seek to tackle meaningful culture change can benefit from taking a methodical approach as described in this series. If you have success stories or horror stories you’d like to share, just use the comment link below or contact me.

One Last Thing: Thanks for the help Joe and Doctor Osgood! It feels like my old wheels are almost back.


Questions for Chatter:

  • Is it better for Change Agents to diagnose the need for culture change with or without help from outside “experts”?
  • Have you been involved in a culture change that “atrophied” because stakeholders were not required or encouraged to do their “homework” and play an active role in adopting the change?

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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