Culture is like the wind. It is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt. When it is blowing in your direction, it makes for smooth sailing. When it is blowing against you, everything is more difficult.
For organizations seeking to become more adaptive and innovative, culture change is often the most challenging part of the transformation. Innovation demands new behaviors from leaders and employees that are often antithetical to corporate cultures, which are historically focused on operational excellence or efficiency.
But culture change can’t be achieved through top-down mandate. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of “how things are done around here”. Someone with authority can demand compliance, but they can’t dictate optimism, trust, conviction or creativity.
Employees have a choice between being merely compliant or completely committed. The difference in behavior between those two choices is significant and important to the bottom line of an organization. I call that gap between compliance and commitment “discretionary productivity”. It’s at the employee’s discretion as to how they will behave.
One leader who understands this well runs a large division of a multinational corporation where billions of dollars are at stake. With operations being run in many different countries and with several thousand employees, decision making had grown more convoluted and segments of the division had become misaligned. Over the years, this EVP had built in a lot of procedures, and for many good reasons. But those procedures had also slowed the company down.
This EVP sought to evolve the culture to be nimble, innovative and customer centric. He knew it required a journey to align and galvanize all employees. His leadership team began with a search for purpose. Over the course of several months, the team worked to learn about the needs of everyone including newly hired employees to senior level leaders, external partners and investors. Together they defined and distilled the purpose of their division and developed a statement that conjured up a picture in the minds of everyone.
But instead of plastering this new statement on motivational posters and repeating it in all hands meetings, the leadership team began by quietly using it to start guiding their own decisions. The goal was to demonstrate this idea in action, not talk about it. Key projects were selected to highlight agility, innovation, and customer centricity. An internal data platform was developed to help employees be proactive, aligned with other team members and accountable to results. Communication channels were redesigned so that incoming customer feedback and comments were quickly able to be accessed by all employees and internal feedback and feedforward suggestions were able to be acted on immediately.
At this point it was time to more broadly share the stated purpose. At the internal launch event, the employees learned about their purpose and were invited to be part of realizing it. Everyone was asked to make a personal promise about how they, in their current role, would contribute to the organizational purpose. Soon after this launch, the senior leadership team established a new “innovation center” to offer additional support for fostering creativity within the division.
I’d like to draw a parallel between culture change and societal movements.
We often think of movements as starting with a call to action. But movements actually start with emotion – a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a broad sense that the current institutions and power structures of the society will not address the problem. This brewing discontent turns into a movement when a voice arises that provides a positive vision and path forward that’s within the power of the crowd.
Social movements typically start small. They begin with a group of passionate enthusiasts who deliver a few modest wins. While these wins are small, they’re powerful in demonstrating efficacy to nonparticipants and they help the movement gain steam. The movement really gathers force and scale once this group successfully co-ops existing networks and influencers. Eventually, in successful movements, leaders leverage their momentum and influence to institutionalize the change in the formal power structures and rules of society.
Successful leaders of movements are often masters of framing situations in terms that stir emotion and incite action. Framing can also apply social pressure to confirm. For example, “Secondhand smoke kills. So shame on you for smoking around others”.
In terms of organizational culture change, simply explaining the need for change won’t cut it. Creating a sense of urgency is helpful, but can be short-lived. To harness people’s full, lasting commitment, they must feel a deep desire, and even responsibility to change. A leader can do this by framing change within the organization’s purpose – the “why we exist” question. A good organizational purpose calls for the pursuit of greatness in service of others. It asks employees to be driven by more than personal gain. It gives meaning to work, conjures individual emotion, and incites collective action.
Movement makers are very good at recognizing the power of celebrating small wins. Research has shown that demonstrating efficacy is one way that movements bring in people who are sympathetic but not yet mobilized to join.
When it comes to organizational culture change, leaders too often fall into the trap of declaring the culture shifts they hope to see. Instead, they need to spotlight examples of actions they hope to see more of within the culture. Sometimes these examples already exist within the culture, but on a limited scale. Other times, they need to be created.
Effective movement makers are extremely good at building coalitions, bridging disparate groups to form a larger and more diverse network that shares a common purpose. And effective movement makers know how to activate existing networks for their purposes. This was the case with the leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement, who recruited members through the strong community ties formed in churches. But recruiting new members to a cause is not the only way that movement makers leverage social networks. They also use social networks to spread ideas and broadcast their wins.
My clients’ leadership team did not hide in a back room and come up with their purpose. Over the course of several months, people from across the organization were engaged in the process. The approach was built on the belief that people are more apt to support what they have a stake in creating. And during the organization-wide launch event, the leadership team invited all employees to make the purpose their own by defining how they personally would help deliver it in their specific roles.
Movement makers are experts at creating or identifying spaces within which movement members can craft strategy and discuss tactics. These are spaces where the rules of engagement and behaviors of activists are different from those of the dominant culture. They’re microcosms of what the movement hopes will become the future.
The dominant culture and structure of today’s organizations are perfectly designed to produce their current behaviors and outcomes, regardless of whether those outcomes are the ones you want. If your hope is for individuals to act differently, it helps to change their surrounding conditions to be more supportive of the new behaviors, particularly when they are antithetical to the dominant culture. Outposts and labs are often built as new environments that serve as a microcosm for change.
Movement makers are experts at constructing and deploying symbols and costumes that simultaneously create a feeling of solidarity and define who they are and what they stand for to the outside world. Symbols and costumes of solidarity help define the boundary between “us” and “them” for movements. These symbols can be as simple as a T-shirt, bumper sticker, or button, supporting a general cause, or as elaborate as the giant puppets we often see used in protest events.
Unlike a movement maker, an enterprise leader is often in a position of authority. They can mandate changes to the organization – and at times they should. However, when it comes to culture change, they should do so sparingly. It’s easy to overuse one’s authority in the hopes of accelerating transformation.
It’s also easy for an enterprise leader to shy away from organizational friction. Harmony is generally a preferred state after all. And the success of an organizational transition is often judged by its seamlessness.
In movement based approach to change, a moderate amount of friction is positive. A complete absence of friction probably means that little is actually changing. Look for the places where the movement faces resistance and experiences friction. They often indicate where the dominant organizational design and culture may need to evolve.
And remember that culture change only happens when people take action. So, start there. While articulating a mission and changing company structures are important, it’s often a more successful approach to tackle those sorts of issues after you’ve been able to show people the change you want to see.
Cheryl Good is one of only 250 Executive Coaches in the world who is certified in Conversational Intelligence. Learn more at her website www.CherylGood.com or contact her at PerformanceSolutions@CherylGood.com for information about how to increase accountability to results, heighten organizational performance and increase employee engagement.