Culture Change Tips and Traps

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the series “Disruptive and Innovative Culture Change,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by Switch & Shift and the good people at Culture University. Keep track of the series here and check our daily e-mail newsletter for all posts. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

Whether it’s the current dysfunction in the United States Congress, or airline customer service, when things are not working the way they should the answer always seems to be — change the culture. This call for cultural change often occurs without understanding the barriers to culture change, and what success requires. As a result, we fall prey to predictable traps.

Cultural Change Traps

  1. Ignoring deeply held assumptions and beliefs

Our notions about “the way things work around here” form the basis for an organization’s culture. Real culture change begins with understanding these assumptions and how they impact work. The belief held by flight deck crewmembers that the captain is always right have led crewmembers not to speak up “even when they know something isn’t right,” resulting in needless loss of lives.

  1. Believing culture change is quick

Despite the promises many consultants make, changing an organization’s culture is a long-term proposition. While it is easier to effect behavioral change, shifting the assumptions and beliefs people hold requires long-haul commitment. Operating room checklists designed to increase patient safety work only when those participating believe they can raise issues and concerns without rebuke or punishment by the surgeon. Studies have shown that these protocols are more effective when everyone in the operating room believes that the protocols lead to increased patient safety and when the lead surgeon supports raising concerns. Success requires more than a few good-guy surgeons; it requires leadership over the long haul. It means constantly examining how behaviors are changing or not changing, and the extent to which people’s underlying beliefs are shifting. It means making sure there is congruency between the culture leadership espouses and what occurs on a day-to-day basis. When people experience that the protocols work, that their voice counts, and that the “organization is walking its talk,” the culture begins to shift. Achieving this shift requires leadership not just at the beginning of the change process, but over the long haul.

  1. Ignoring the larger culture

When GM created the Saturn Corporation, they sought to create a subsidiary within GM that had a different culture based on quality, productivity, safety, trust, and cooperation. Initially, GM achieved its goal and the results were spectacular. Saturn, with its highly trained team-based workforce, met every performance expectation. The problem was that Saturn was too different from the rest of GM. The larger GM culture was unable to work with the new Saturn culture. The cultural immune system kicked in and GM made Saturn look and feel like GM, eventually leading to its demise.

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Cultural Change Tips

  1. Focus on changing the work, not the culture

Changing an organization’s culture involves unlearning old ways of thinking and doing. It means having to think about doing things we take for granted. This creates anxiety among organization members, which actually results in poorer performance. When a large national bank focused on making the loan process easier, they uncovered the need for more internal teamwork. Because everyone in the bank saw improving teamwork as the path to more efficient loan processing, employees worked hard to remove internal barriers to customer service. The culture shift occurred in three phases: the first involved uncovering the underlying desire by employees to create effective teamwork within the organization; the second phase involved employees in improving teamwork within and between functions; the third involved improving the customer experience.

  1. Focus on Learning

In her book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Amy Edmondson states the benefits of focusing on learning. She says when a task is perceived as a performance situation, people are more risk averse and less willing to persist when things get rough. Stating an issue as a learning opportunity creates more willingness to experiment and take risks. “We will become a customer-based culture” is different from saying “We will learn together how to become a customer-based culture.”

  1. Focus on high-involvement

High-involvement change processes, such as our own Conference Model®, give people a way to experience and experiment with how the new culture might work as they create new ways of working together. When people from all levels come together along with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders to create a new organization, the change process creates an opportunity to learn how to work across hierarchy and organizational boundaries in a safe productive environment. Participant learning throughout the process plants the seeds for cultural transformation.

Next time you hear the call for cultural change, ask yourself:

  • What is the critical business issue that needs addressing?
  • How would changing the organization’s culture help address this critical business issue?
  • Am I looking for a quick fix or am I in it for the long haul?
  • How can I make this a learning opportunity for those involved?
  • Which of the cultural change traps am I likely to ignore?
  • Which of the cultural change tips am I likely to ignore?
  • What will success require of me?

Thinking about what the culture truly needs can keep you out of avoidable traps and help you guide successful culture change.

 

Upcoming Culture Change Engaginar (aka webinar)

We are also partnering with Human Synergistics’s Tim Kuppler to do a free engaginar on the topic of innovative and disruptive culture change. Please join us for this insightful and powerful session. Seating is limited to 100 people. Register early to get your spot. Registrants will also get a free white paper on culture change from Human Synergistics. Register here.

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Dick Axelrod, author, speaker, consultant, cofounded with his wife Emily the Axelrod Group, Inc., a consulting firm that pioneered the use of employee involvement to effect large-scale organizational change. In his work Dick seeks to transform business interactions into human experiences. Dick has taught at American University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. He is the proud grandfather of Zach and Andy. Dick is long suffering Chicago Cubs fan which explains his optimistic spirit.

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