The adage “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast” sounds enticing, and many companies are keen to create a high-performance culture. They want to change “the way things are done around here” for the better.
As a result, there are “employee engagement workshops”, nice posters with a list of desired behaviours on the wall, but in the end the old behaviours creep back and the cultural transformation has died off on the walls: the organisation is not much more agile than before, not much more creative than before… Sometimes even less, as employees become cynical and the initiatives backfire!
In short, cultural transformation is hard, very hard…!
Cultural transformation is often a top priority, but poorly done.
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What’s often missing to embed the new behaviour and make the new culture last is the link to the corporate purpose and mission.
So the starting point is not just to understand what new behaviours the organisation wants to promote and why (such as more agility to boost innovation) but also to get employees to relate to what the organisation is trying to achieve through the new culture: not just more profit for the business and maybe a bigger bonus for the culturally-compliant employee, but how the culture relates to the individuals’ values and beliefs, lest the behaviour won’t be internalised and therefore won’t last: cognitive dissonance wins every time!
Step-by-step, here is how to approach cultural transformation and engage the team:
1. Define the new behaviours the organisation wants to promote based on both business objectives AND the corporate purpose: creativity, experimentation, collaboration, empowerment, accountability, excellence in execution, bias for action – whichever they are, make them meaningful. And make sure they are coherent, lest you are asking for conflicting behaviours. The need for meaning and consistency is so important because change is hard, and willpower to actually change will only be there if the motivation is strong enough. Behaviour follows mindset.
2. Start at the top: the leaders must be role models and create a safe and inclusive environment. You can’t ask people to be more creative or take risk if they fear they’ll look foolish or might lose their job. The leader’s priority is therefore to build trust within their team and self-consistency with the behaviours they are asking from others.
3. Understand the most common barriers and motivators: you can’t get everybody on board, but you need a critical mass to get over the tipping point, when change is irreversible and the sceptics have to join in. What’s working? What’s not? That’s where interviews, surveys, focus groups have a role to play. Use a third party if the starting point is a negative culture so that people are not afraid to open up. Then work out plans to make it easier to change: what barriers can be removed? It can be legacy, it can be people. Conversely, what motivators can be strengthened?
Companies like Google and Amazon also use analytics to uncover the practices of their best managers and then use them in coaching sessions to improve the work of low performers. More importantly than data about individual people is data about the interplay among people, aka relational analytics. Relational analytics helps identify the cultural linchpins of the organisation and improves ideation, communication, etc. And guess what, funny enough “employees are not most influenced by the company’s senior leadership”.
4. Now comes the hard part: embedding the new behaviours and getting lasting change. It’s not just about KPIs and yearly reviews. It’s about consistent, regular and immediate feedback. And feedback goes both ways: get feedback regularly from employees: are they seeing a difference, do they believe in it? The focus groups should not stop once the list of behaviours is defined, it should continue. Employee engagement surveys are a good proxy, but just a proxy; nothing replaces direct feedback to see whether change really is happening and taking hold. And obviously, make sure that you start recruiting for behaviours and values as much as for technical competency, so that the new recruits feel at home from day 1!
5. Culture needs structure: make sure the policies and processes are updated to force the new behaviours. You want more creativity? Burn the dress code! Update the innovation process, the cross-functional project processes, even the way meetings are run if needed. These should have been picked up in the “barriers”, so they can be redesigned, ideally using human-centred principles. Some organisations choose to adopt a new “language”, because by changing the words they use they remind people about their behaviours.
6. Know where you stand: a good model is the Barrett Values Model, showing the overall sense of identity of the organisation: from survival mode to a thriving, high-performance culture.
I will end with an emphasis on the need to keep the process alive, because it is easier to evolve continuously than do a revolution (aka restructure) every few years, and because as the environment keeps changing, so does the organisation.
Cultural transformation is not a one-off project but an on-going, dynamic and never-ending one. Go for marginal gains and they will compound.
And though the process can be owned by the People & Culture (aka HR) team or a dedicated “change” PMO team, it is the responsibility of all leaders, including the board Directors, as it directly impacts business results.
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