If you need to shift your culture from where it is to a different viewpoint and value set, is there any incentive for change without a crisis? Will a culture make changes on its own or do people need a fright in order to seriously disrupt business as usual?
Dan Ward argues in this piece that the propensity for espousing burning platforms and fear-based programmes doesn’t bring about meaningful cultural change. Instead of fanning the flames of urgency, he says, organisations should acknowledge that they already have many cultures and that within these lie the seeds for the development of wider change. Hold a particular group up as an exemplar, he suggests, and advocate for others to join in rather than insisting everyone throw their hands in the air in horror and break with everything they know.
Crisis is not a driver for good change in a culture
Interestingly, as this case study for Aetna shows, even a company that is in a hole can succeed in changing its culture without depending on the crisis itself for change. When John Rowe took over as CEO, he employed a strengths-focused approach that drew on a shared sense of concern, deep pride in the history and purpose of the company, and feelings of respect and dedication. In so doing, he accomplished what his predecessors had failed to do: shift the dial.
The authors observe: “All too often, leaders see cultural initiatives as a last resort … By the time they get around to culture, they’re convinced that a comprehensive overhaul of the culture is the only way to overcome the company’s resistance to major change. Culture thus becomes an excuse and a diversion, rather than an accelerator and an energizer. But cultural intervention can and should be an early priority—a way to clarify what your company is capable of, even as you refine your strategy.”
Aligning culture and strategy
That’s the key it seems to me – tying cultural planning to strategic planning so that the two are in alignment. If organisations were to focus on cultural planning instead of insisting on cultural change, almost for the sake of it, they could instigate programmes and introduce resources that would help their employees to better fulfil shifts in the strategy.
Not only would strategy and culture be matched in such circumstances but they would actively support one another and the workforce charged with making them happen. Behavioural shifts could be part of this cultural planning, allowing new ideas to be introduced as helpful ways to improve work rather than as rules to make everyone more compliant. This would also align well with Ward’s suggestion of highlighting cultural pockets of excellence and inviting others to emulate what is happening and being achieved there.
While there is evidence to suggest that the success of change programs correlates strongly with whether culture was leveraged, I’m not convinced that the reverse question has been asked or researched often enough: if you leverage culture strongly, do you even need change programs to be successful? In other words, instead of focusing on the case for change, should more organisations be focusing on continuous cultural improvement; building on what they have to be more competitive and drawing on the culture as a resource to help make that happen?
As the survey by the Katzenbach Center makes clear, people in a culture are far more aware of the need for change than they are often given credit for. “A full 96 percent of respondents say some change to their culture is needed … there would seem to be an opportunity, indeed a need, to evolve culture itself so that it can be used as more of a change lever and, in some cases, to have culture lead the transformation.” I agree.
8 ways to leverage culture
To achieve this, the report suggests, organisations need to employ several levers:
1. Culture diagnostic – they need to know the culture’s strengths and weaknesses in order to tap the strengths and address the weaknesses;
2. The “critical few” behaviours – there needs to be a small number of clear behavioural change goals;
3. Employee pride and commitment – companies must find ways to galvanise people around ideas that they can believe in;
4. Informal peer networks and motivators – companies should encourage peer-to-peer support and interaction;
5. Storytelling – story is used to explain how the culture will get to its destination and to reinforce pride and desired behaviours
I have no argument with any of these, but suggest cultural planning could incorporate other levers as well:
6. Cultural innovation – the opportunity to “lab” ideas and approaches within the organization before they are introduced to the culture as a whole. This is an extension of Ward’s idea;
7. Support targets – clear goals for the culture that complement the strategic goals for the business and that lay out the hard and soft objectives for people. These would extend beyond the HR goals to encompass how people are to be supported in order for the strategic goals to be reached. This would help organisations achieve more accurate cause and effects appraisals between their people and the achievement of their business strategies; and
8. Personal initiatives – people would have permission to try things out to see if they would work. Such programs could be in the form of a series of strategic challenges that are posted across the organisation and that individuals can nominate a certain percentage of their working week to tackling. Individuals would be recognsed for the scale of the problem they chose to address and the conversations they started as much as the actual outcomes.
You don’t fix what’s not working by doing more of it. That’s true of cultural performance; and it applies equally to how companies should approach cultural transformation for their brands.