Three Critical Elements In Driving Culture Change, And Four Ways To Tell If You Are Making Progress

Feb 26 2014, 7:25pm CST | by

Businesses of all kinds seem wedded to the idea that the problems confronting them are so overwhelming and complex that the only solution is a fundamental shift in how they do things. As a result, they create initiatives that are so ambitious that you wonder if it would not be easier for the organization concerned to pack up and start again. Indeed, in some cases that is effectively what these “change programs” amount to. Unsurprisingly, then, few work. Change, if it happens at all, is often fleeting.

The reason, according to a team at the consultancy Booz & Company led by Jon Katzenbach, is that not enough leaders recognize that a few key behaviours can have a disproportionate effect on company success. Instead, Katzenbach and his colleagues write in the firm’s Strategy + Business magazine, leaders “find it hard to resist the temptation to pile one directive on top of another; even when those efforts are aligned to the same ultimate goals, they often undermine one another.” In addition, when these initiatives are focused on trying to change the culture they are “almost always too comprehensive, programmatic, esoteric and urgent”. Essentially, leaders fail to realise how deeply ingrained in employees’ beliefs and habits culture can be – and, as a result, how difficult it will be to change behavior in lasting ways.

The Booz team says experience of a range of organizations operating around the world suggests that companies that leave aside all-encompassing culture change initiatives and instead focus on a “critical few” elements are more successful. The three elements are critical behaviors, existing cultural traits and critical informal leaders.

The first group comprises the ways of doing things that can be spread easily from one employee to another. They have the potential to generate real business impact, especially if they become habitual and widespread.  The second refers to the three or four emotional elements in the current culture that together epitomize the organization’s sense of identity. They play a key role in supporting the most important behaviors. The critical informal leaders – the last group – are those few “authentic individuals” who motivate others by what they do and how they do it. They are recognized by colleagues as “credible, trustworthy and effective” and they know how to influence behavior. Accordingly, they are much more effective than “change agents” appointed by senior executives and sent to infiltrate the workforce.

The Booz consultants believe that this approach works better than the top-down messaging and formal programs usually adopted because it takes into account the emotional dimension of human behavior. Noting that how employees feel about something can get in the way of how they think about it, because individuals are simultaneously emotional and rational, they say it is important that organizations answer their employees’ desire for simplicity rather than offer yet more complexity. “When people we trust and admire clearly model and encourage a few key behaviors, those behaviors spread much more quickly, and they stick,” they say.

Like many other business observers, they use the famously quirky Southwest Airlines as an example. But, while describing how the strong culture at the no-frills airline is reinvigorated by teams of volunteers who visit hundreds of employees every year to show their appreciation, they warn that such initiatives will not alone create a strong culture. What is needed is adherence to the “critical few”.

So, how do leaders know when they have focused on the right elements and have them aligned? Katzenbach and his colleagues have four indicators that reveal whether a corporate culture is boosting the business.

1. The culture taps into the waiting reserves of energy within lots of people. If the culture is focused on a certain set of performance outcomes and employees buy into this people start to reinforce each other informally.

2. The culture guides down-the-line decision making. If there is a strong culture, there is no need for formal sign-offs and the other approvals that slow down action. Employees can rely on cultural influences to help them decide what they should do. As a result, they will act quickly and they will show their initiative.

3. The culture builds enduring execution capability. As critical behaviors turn into habits, people become faster and better at executing. There is evidence of greater customer loyalty, employee engagement improves, emotional commitment to what the organization is focused on grows, continuous improvement is more rigorously pursued and there is greater resilience in downturns.

4. Behaviors in normal times emulate positive behaviors during crisis situations. Executives often praise the collaborative, selfless and energetic behaviour of their people in times of crisis and lament that they do not see so much of these attitudes normally. “This difference is in large part explainable by the activation of cultural forces that occurs during a crisis,” say the Booz consultants. “When you are focused on activating those forces all the time, you get that ‘special’ level of performance all the time.”

Source: Forbes Business


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