Simple Steps Toward Culture Change

Simple Steps Toward Culture Change

Often, executives want to improve the culture in their business unit.   Yet many experience a sense of helpless because they feel the only way they can do this is to change the structures, systems and processes in the organization over which they have little control.  While organizational design can have a large and sometimes negative impact, there are things you can do to really make a strong and positive difference.  Take the case of Lisa:

“I’d like to talk to you about a big project,” Lisa began over coffee that morning. “We’re supposed to achieve these ‘stretch’ goals, and frankly, unless we change the culture in our department, I don’t know how we are going to do it.”

As the new head of a sizable department in a large financial institution, Lisa was finding that even her employees were complaining about having too much “dead wood.”  Too many people were out the door at 4:30 p.m. Too many on the team blamed each other for errors and too few had any idea where the department was going or how they were supposed to get there.
As we talked, I encouraged Lisa not to change anything just yet – the performance review system, the rewards packages, the training programs. “Don’t change anything for now and let’s work on just a few things in order to see if any make a difference,” I counseled.
In the interim, we took the following steps:
  1. Over-communicate the goals!   As Lisa had mentioned, many of her employees had no clue about the department’s direction.  She made those crystal clear and was not afraid to over-communicate them, using the “7 X 7 rule.”  This rule states: If you want people to get the message, communicate it seven times in seven different ways!!
  2. Engage employees in discussions about the culture — now and in the future:Using a carefully selected set of 15 photographs, we found the employees immediately started to talk about behaviors, beliefs and practices that reflected the current culture of the department.  Working in groups, each team selected a picture that represented the current state and one which represented the kind of future state they believed would help them accomplish their goals. These discussions started to build a collective passion for culture change.Example Photos
    Current:Firefighting Desired:Focused Teamwork
  3. Narrow the focus to the few critical behaviors and practices that need to change.After the photo exercise, it was natural to ask the team to identify the kinds of practices and behaviors that needed to be changed if the department goals were to be achieved.  We facilitated this process by using a set of 44 cards, each representing a cultural practice and behavioral statements. These cards are based on extensive research of corporate culture and organizational effectiveness.
    Examples of Cultural Practices and Behaviors

    • I can depend on others to do what they say they are going to do.
    • If someone makes a mistake, they don’t try to deflect blame on others.
    • People work together across different department functions.
    • People are able to put aside their differences to do what is in the best interest of the department as a whole.

    Additional discussions led to the identification and prioritization of the most important practices to change if the department was going to achieve its goals.

  4. Develop action plans to implement the behaviors and practices.Specific action plans — tactics, timelines and champions — were developed and implemented by the employees.  Lisa held frequent meetings to monitor progress and to recognize and reward the good work that was being accomplished.
  5. Give particular attention to the formal and informal leaders.  Lisa also focused on the behavior of the formal and informal leaders who serve as exemplars for others.  Few employees believe what they read or what they hear, so memos, instructions, wall plaques and the like are of little value. They will only believe what they see. Change the behavior of the people to whom they look for their examples.

As is always the case, a few people did not like the “new” culture and left … the ones that most people were hoping would leave.  On the other hand, Lisa’s department developed a new sense of pride and energy as it made its way along the road to becoming one of the highest performing departments in the company!

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