A recent discussion was started on LinkedIn regarding culture change. The title of the discussion said it all: What does it take to change an ailing culture? Lots of effort and learning.
Well, sure, effort and learning…but what needs to be done and what needs to be learned? The topic of culture change is a hot one. It seems almost cliche that when a new, super-charged CEO comes into a company, “we are going to drive culture change” will fall from the new savior’s lips. Culture change is not a car, and it can’t be driven just because someone with an eight-figure salary says it will be.
But most people, not just CEO’s but people at all levels of many organizations, sense that something is off; in the words of the discussion-starter, the culture is “ailing.” So how can a culture be changed? Lots of effort and learning?
In this and the next three posts, I will share my theory of culture development and culture change. I don’t claim it to be uniquely my thoughts, but this presentation has worked as a “side bar” discussion in many classes I have presented. So I present my ideas here, and always invite conversation, discussion, disagreement or any comment you care to supply (I am tired of cleaning out my spam queue on my blog).
I contend that, like nearly any continuous improvement effort, culture change is not so much about mastering some inside information or “ancient wisdom” as it is about relentlessly performing a few easy-to-understand activities. Could it be as easy as lots of effort and learning?
In a sense, yes, but the learning and effort have to be reversed.
The first learning has to concern itself with: what is our current organizational culture? If I intend to change the culture, I need to have a keen understanding of what the current culture looks like. In describing the culture, there are both quantitative and qualitative aspects to the culture description.
The quantitative measure of culture will include any performance measurements, whether on the profit-and-loss statement, the quality or productivity report, or inventory management reports. Qualitative measurements will also include absenteeism statistics, turnover statistics and safety statistics. Any less-than-desirable measures indicate adjustments to some aspects of the culture is warranted, because the measures are necessarily a function of the culture.
Qualitative measures are a critical component of culture understanding, even if they are not so quantifiable. The qualitative measures are more personal: people feel the effects of the culture in a way that either stimulates or suppresses excellent performance. The culture will often be described in terms of morale (good or bad).
So the first aspect of culture change is to define and describe the current culture and determine to what degree “culture change” is something to pursue. Leadership has to take the time and make the effort necessary–and be honest to themselves–to accurately define the current culture. Leadership must then correlate the qualitative with the quantitative (the poor results) in order to plan “change.”
The next step (which will we cover in Part 2) is to understand how the culture came into being, and what will have to be done differently to remake the culture.