It’s tempting to see a struggling brand or business as one mass of people, and to believe that underperformance is spread evenly across the organisation. That’s seldom the case.
Often there are organisational bright spots (teams that inspire or could inspire those around them) and there are other parts where things are not good. Usual points of tension? Frontline and middle management. Frontline – because they feel unsupported and under huge pressure to achieve goals. Middle management – because they’re classically sandwiched between the upward pressure from the teams they’re leading and the downward pressure of the goals and objectives set by the executive teams.
Often when executives try to address that underperformance through a change initiative, the impulse is to throw a collective net over everyone. That seldom works and is often an inefficient knee-jerk response. Particularly if the current culture of the organisation isn’t taken into consideration.
Why single-fix changes fail
In this piece in Forbes, Steve Denning explains why. An organisation’s culture he says is “an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions. The elements fit together as an mutually reinforcing system and combine to prevent any attempt to change it. That’s why single-fix changes … may appear to make progress for a while, but eventually the interlocking elements of the organizational culture take over and the change is inexorably drawn back into the existing organizational culture.”
That isn’t to suggest that change will inevitably fail when it’s introduced to an existing culture. It does mean that executives need to be more mindful – and nuanced – when introducing change initiatives.
Denning’s suggestion? A three tier programme of leadership tools (including story), management tools and compliance tools for those who need more of a “nudge” to tow the line. The key problem he identifies is one of approach. Organisations over-emphasise compliance and story but fail to put in place the management tools that will make change happen. That’s why of course middle managers have such resentment for change programmes – because they have nothing to work with, but huge expectations to work to.
What’s the problem?
We don’t disagree. But, we believe, there’s a step that precedes the answer. Finding the real problem. Not the problem as it appears to those in charge – but the real problem in the marketplace. In today’s service focused economy, you can’t deal with what you must do yourselves unless it’s grounded in what you’re not doing for others.
That’s the critical context setting that change initiatives must have: less of an instinctive focus on what is changing and a more critical focus on why change is necessary.
Chances are that the problem can be summarised in one of six statements – and ideally only one.
1. We’re too slow to keep pace with our competitors
2. We’ve made a big mistake
3. We’re in the wrong business because everything’s changed around us
4. We lack judgment
5. We don’t communicate well
6. We act badly
It’s critical to state a problem this simply. It’s also revealing, because it goes directly to the shortfall that should be the focus of changes in strategy. Anything less is going to be a rearrangement of the deckchairs.
That’s why we often talk in terms of “burning platforms” for change. And if the change you’re seeking is large and complex, you better have a “burning platform” if you’re going to have any hope of galvanizing an organisation.
Effective cultures account for 20 – 30 percent of the differential in corporate performance
Case in point, a business that is not responsive enough, for example, should be aiming to re-energise how it works – faster, in a more agile manner, with greater customer-centricity. If Professor James Heskett is right, and effective cultures account for 20 – 30 percent of the differential in corporate performance compared to “culturally unremarkable” competitors, then changes should be outcome-driven and outcome-judged. And so many changes aren’t.
Too often the context and imperative for change isn’t stated explicitly and simply so that all employees get “why” change is needed. Change for change sake is whimsical not strategic. And when you’re trying to instil new behaviours and challenge the status quo within your organisation, whimsical doesn’t stand a chance.
As an executive your role is to lead, often through periods of great change – but you can’t do that without giving your followers context first.
Co-authored with Hilton Barbour, Freelance Strategist & Marketing Provocateur. Hilton has led global assignments ranging from Coca-Cola, IBM, Motorola and Enron to Ernst & Young and Nokia. Working as a freelance strategist allows him to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about business, people and trends. An avid blogger, Hilton’s personal mantra is “Question Everything”. Follow him at @ZimHilton.