While Zensiblo is heading towards her sixth anniversary, my work in changing and transforming organization culture has well passed the 20-year mark.
It is a good time to introspect and crystallize some lesson learned.
The Road Traveled (So Far)
Some twenty years ago, I left my career in media marketing (I’m talking about traditional radio here. Internet was just entering into the landscape then) into management consulting.
Among my initial assignments were assisting a large public utility to radically reeingineer some cross-functional processes, helping a mid-size freight-forwarder to become more customer-centric and efficient, and leading a local tech giant (now world tech giant) to transform itself from the inside-out.
All these initial assignments inevitably arrived at a point that we needed to address the company culture, whatever it was. For some clients, it was the point that they realize the needed change required a dose of culture transformation, or change in the way people worked, interacted, and interpreted the world.
In the years that followed, more clients and more needs for change – family businesses wanted to become modernized in management, educational institutions desired to better support students, non-profits striving to become more user-centric and efficient, tech companies wanted to stay ahead of competition, … The list kept growing and “new” methodologies were added. Total Quality Management (TQM), Business Process Reengineering (BPR), Six Sigma, Lean, Design Thinking, … were in the roadmaps. But one thing never changed: at some point, we need to meet and greet our friend – organizational culture.
5 Key Takeaways
I have learned a lot in these years, and share the joy and pain with my clients. On top of that, there are 5 esssential things that every top executives and business owners need to know.
1. Always Drive from the Top
There are always voices from the field, the middle level, the top, and everywhere in an organization saying that “we need to change the culture”. However, I have never seen any successful change without the determination and drive from the top.
This is common sense, but not elaborated enough. By determination I mean personal commitment, real actions, congruent decisions and behaviour demonstrations.
It is not just about management team having a “consensus” on the core values or the grand plan and promoting them via various channels. You see them on the walls and on your screen saver and T-shirts does not mean you believe in it and your live and die with that culture, so to speak.
And yes, fish rots from the head, too. The corruption of an organization’s culture also starts somewhere at the top.
2. It takes Integrated Actions
Many organizations form committees or working groups to steer culture transformation. Some appointed ambassadors or facilitators to promote the new culture. These are useful tactics, but only a small part of the effort.
Culture is a dynamic and multiple-level maze. Individuals, relationships, working habits/patterns, structures, systems, all represent aspects of the culture. Effective change must be deep and integrative, and able to fuel itself towards the needed direction.
It would be silly to say that you want to infuse a creative and innovative culture into the organization if rigid rules and policies are in place to guard for any possibility to err. Either there need to be a specially created zone to protect people from those creativity-destroying factors, or you are just sending your innovative troop to a death mission.
3. Start with a Baseline
Culture transformation does not start from a vacuum. You do not, even for a startup, dream up from nowhere what the culture should be and merely achieve towards it.
You have to know where you are standing, know what the current culture is in relation to where you want to go. For instance, in the very unlikely case that two companies desire to build an identical future culture, their paths, the actions needed, the time required, and the hurdles will all be different if they are at different starting points.
4. Find a Way to Measure
You won’t know if you are on the right track if you cannot measure progress. By “measure” I mean some consistent and repeatable ways to tell us where we are.
My clients and I have tried different measures. We used some sort of questionnaire surveys, setting KPIs, behaviour indicators. You name it. Depending on the nature of the change, we have sometimes used creative measures to detect if we are heading towards the right direction.
Somehow, the key is that we need to tell ourselves if things have changed. Without feedback on the progress, the change effort are destined to get lost.
5. Culture Does Not Change Over-night
This should also be common sense!
However, leadership team usually lack patience. Shallow changes are easy. You can stir up new initiatives, ask people to submit improvement ideas, change processes and procedures, etc., in relatively short time.
The question is: do people own the change?
Deep changes require changes in beliefs and values, which in turn become the compass to the way people live and behave in the organization.
It may take only weeks or months to see the surface results, but years to see those deep changes.
Once an executive team told me that they could confirm there is a fundamental shift of culture from a functional silo-ish one to a collaborative one after about 2 years of a major change effort. The moment of truth? They overheard conversations from the field when an operational problem arose. Instead of blaming each other and finding who was responsible, the conversation naturally directed to finding what really happened across the whole cross-functional process, and then work together to solve the issue.
Making Change Work
Many organizations see the need to change, many executives craft their strategy for a better future. But without considering the needed shift in the culture, the effort may still go nowhere.
These 5 takeaways are just starters. You may add them to the list of factors to consider, or things to be aware of, in leading major change efforts.
What have you learned from your own cultural transformation/change experience?