Culture Change Tip #23: Answer These 8 Questions

Mar 06, 2012 No Comments by

Before you pull the trigger on your big culture change – consider answering a few simple questions… So far in this series, I’ve suggested a few ways that Change Agents can start the process of moving their culture in a specific positive direction.

I started by recommending that they choose very carefully what elements of the culture they wish to impact. A lack of focus can make significant change nearly impossible.

In my last post, I suggested that change agents “get a grip” on their culture change before diving headlong into the fray.  In this article, I’ll offer a methodical way to plan the change before you hit that “Go” button.

The Calm Before the Storm. Over the course of my career, I’ve defined and lead a boatload of projects. In the course of that work, I’ve developed a short list of simple questions that can be applied to planning just about any project. For those of you who have taken my “Project Management-101” workshop, these will sound very familiar.

It turns out, my eight questions can be applied to the planning process for a cultural change project as well. Still, you may be surprised how many attempted culture changes move forward without answers to these basic planning foundations.

Question 1: What’s In? The first and second questions are about the scope and expected outcomes of your culture change. Be clear about what changes you are looking for, how you will track progress and what goes beyond your expectations. Strike a balance between how much tangible change you expect and how much change your team can handle. Don’t overload your change or you may risk losing the broader cultural battle.

For example, let’s say your culture change involves building a more effective attitude of customer service among your staff. You might list some very clear behavioral expectations that are “in scope” like:

  • …Always address the customer by name and be sure to know whether they prefer you to use their first name or last name and title.
  • …Always ask how you can make their experience better – and listen closely for their answer before you suggest a solution.
  • …Always take personal responsibility for their total satisfaction.
  • …Even after a problem is resolved – ask if there is anything else you can do to help.
  • …Expect that we will randomly ask customers if each of us follow these guidelines.

You may want to tell folks to use a little judgment and avoid jumping off a cliff to satisfy every customer. Just sayin...

Question 2: What’s Out? Just as importantly, list what elements of your culture change will be considered “out of scope” – or beyond your expectations.

For example in our customer service attitude example, a limit on expectations might look like this:

  • Applying a “…the customer is always right” approach doesn’t mean automatically giving away our products or services for free just because people complain.
  • Use an escalation approach: offer to make it right, then offer a discount or perk, and so forth. Trust employees to develop good judgment over time regarding how far they need to go to make the customer happy.

The bottom line: When planning for culture change, define in clear terms exactly what differences you are looking to see and how you will measure progress.

Questions 3 & 4: Who? & Where? Most stakeholders will ask a few questions when they hear about a pending culture change. I know I’d ask at least these:

  • What does this mean for me?
  • Am I impacted? If so, how?
  • What do I need to do to prepare?

Take the time to lay out which parts of the organization are impacted and which roles will need to adapt in which ways.  It seems like a very simple thing to do, but many cultural changes struggle with adoption simply because people are given too much “wiggle room” to ignore the change until they are forced to pay attention to it.

Here’s a tip that I’ve offered to clients as they are planning for a big change – especially culture change:

The initial pace of change adoption is often set by the initial pace of awareness and the clear understanding how and when  specific stakeholders will need to adapt.

…which leads to my next pair of question:

Questions 5 & 6: When? & How? Outline the timing for your culture change and describe what process people can expect to see unfold. For example, if the change will be rolled out in phases, be ready to address potential questions like:

  • What activities will happen in what order?
  • Are any of these cultural changes being made immediately?
  • Where should people go for information, training or help interpreting the change?

Question 7: With What?  Successful Project Managers know that the results of any initiative are often tied to the targeted investment of materials, staff time and other resources. Many culture changes wither on the vine due to a lack of this investment.

If you want the change to succeed, be ready to put some hard dollars and soft resources into it.  The exact resources that might be needed can vary, but consider some of these potential resource buckets you may want to dip into:

  • Staff time (probably the biggest need).
  • Training and other methods to build awareness and capability.
  • Bandwidth for communication (planning, drafting and releasing change-related content for meetings, printed materials, websites, newsletters and potentially much more).
  • Materials and a process for a positive reinforcement program that engages all levels of management and staff.

Of course, no organization has unlimited resources, so a good project management tip I’ve used goes like this:

Ask for everything you need – then adapt to what you get. Not asking for what you need is a poor excuse for failure.

Question 8: Why? I’ve saved the most important of the eight questions for last. In my previous two articles, I’ve talked about the importance of analyzing your culture and verifying the logic behind your proposed culture change. Once you’ve determined that the change is truly needed, it becomes critical that those executing the culture change share this motivation.

No, this is NOT a good rationale for culture change. If you're seriously thinking of using this approach, please go back and do your homework!

Work as a team to develop a clear rationale for the culture change you seek.  Make sure the entire team and all levels of management are on the same page about why it’s important that this change succeed. Answer their questions ahead of time so they can answer the potential flood of questions they may get.

That’s it. Eight easy questions that make a firm foundation for a culture change initiative. I’ve found that answering these questions is a good exercise in building clarity and reality into any culture change.

In my next post, we’ll pull that trigger and execute your culture change.

As long as you’ve done your homework to prepare, that’s when the real fun starts.

– Steve

Questions for Chatter:

  1. Could this degree of planning for cultural change be considered overkill?
  2. Have you experienced a culture change that failed to consider one or more of the planning elements I’ve described above? If so, what impact did this have on the success of the culture change?

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

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