The Holy Grail: Modifying Organisation Culture

In a consulting career spanning 25 years, I’ve both attended and facilitated many types of executive team interventions. Some were ‘cerebral’ e.g. dealing with questions like “should we enter the car insurance market and what competencies would we need to compete in that space?” Some were ‘physical, like the time we were instructed to dive off a boat in Thailand and swim to the beach – about 500-meters distant. One of the guys, a poor swimmer who had been convinced by our ‘teammates’ that the bay was full of sharks, became frightened and almost drowned (lesson = be careful of outdoor pursuits run by Arnold Swartznegger types). Some of the interventions focused on ‘emotions’ e.g. spending a night in an ‘Indian Tepee’ and reflecting on your life journey to date. Despite the seeming diversity of the activities, a single ‘red thread’ ties many of these interventions together. They were all efforts to modify the culture of the organization, the ‘invisible glue’ that binds everything else together. I believe that the topic of culture is a candidate for the most misunderstood feature of organization life. While many people discuss it, few understand how to intervene and change this very potent ‘lever’ of behaviour. Let’s try to dissect this.

Organization Culture: Most of us are familiar with the power of group ‘norms’ as it applies to teenagers. Example: Teenagers often want to ‘look’ the same to be part of a group (e.g. showing off Calvin Kline boxers over the top of low-slung jeans). This particular fashion trend originated in the US prison system where no belts are allowed – and eventually became ‘street fashion’. On one level wanting to ‘look alike’ is harmless fun; yet, the central argument here is that strong ‘group norms’ doesn’t just apply to teenagers. It has a huge impact on all of us – even if you’ve moved beyond teenage angst and prefer to keep your underwear hidden. The basic principle = group norms’ impact behaviour in all organizations. Hence the familiar definition of organization culture as ‘the way things are done around here’. Not everyone buys into the group norm, but the ones that don’t usually leave or are fired. In this way, ‘norms’ of behaviour are perpetuated over time.

But, what’s less clear is the ‘root’ of this – where did the particular organization culture emerge from? Can organization culture be changed or does it pose an invisible stranglehold, an anchor to future progress? In short, is culture a ‘tool’ that can be used by smart managers to improve organization performance? The short answer is ‘yes, it is’. We can also make this argument in reverse. If you ‘ignore’ the issue of organization culture – you may be swimming hard against an invisible tide. This helps to explain the ‘Culture eats strategy for lunch’ quip.

Changing Culture: So, what’s the best way to ‘intervene’ if you want to ‘change’ the culture of your organization? Is there a ‘painting by numbers’ approach to ensure success? While the topic is complex (there are a million+ ‘models’ of culture available on the internet), I’ve found the following 3-step process particularly helpful in making cultural shifts.

Step #1: Culture Mapping: The concept of organization culture comes from anthropology – the study of culture in society. So, a consultant attempting to understand the culture in Google is actually on a very similar mission to an anthropologist looking at the Fulani tribe in Nigeria. The first step is to establish the key beliefs in the existing culture (hint: There are usually less than 6; if you ‘discover’ 20, you are confusing shark and minnow issues). This can also be ‘proved’ in the negative i.e. what is not an important part of the culture.

Example: I was asked to complete a ‘customer service upgrade’ project with a manufacturing company in rural Ireland. ‘Artifacts’ (tools and symbols), send strong signals about the existing ‘culture’. Prominently displayed in the reception area was a copy of the company mission statement. Customer service was front and centre of this. So far, so good. Until I discovered the following. The Customer Service Manager had failed his final accountancy exams and had been ‘transferred’ into this role (signal: if you are too stupid to become an accountant, we will find a home for you in customer service). The furniture in the customer service department was ‘Steelcase’ – a 2nd hand present from the engineering department who had upgraded to something better. The customer service department was located in the mezzanine area – the only part of the plant that had zero natural light. And, as far as I could determine, no one in the past 12 years had ever actually visited a customer (budgets were ‘tight’ on travel – but not too tight for every other function to rack up more air miles than Willie Walsh in BA). Yes, some things are ‘shiny on the outside’ – like donkey droppings! Was this organization fully committed to ‘customer service’? It wasn’t even in their ‘Top 20’.

Sherlock Holmes: The ‘science’ of culture mapping is essentially detection. You detect the key elements by asking the right questions. What were the stated values of the founder or strong historical leaders? What do they believe to be the key ‘success factors’ in the organization? What scorecard do they use to monitor performance? What issues are celebrated? What keeps the senior team awake at night? Typically, what type of people get ‘promoted’? (e.g. become ‘elders’ in the tribe)? In the case cited above, there was a very ‘strong’ engineering culture – with a huge emphasis on innovation; everything else in that plant was secondary and everyone else (e.g. all the non-engineers) had ‘second cousin’ status; they would never be embraced into the fold. An interesting sub-element of this particular culture was the huge weight placed on people being positive all of the time. The customer service manager, in addition to the fact that he hadn’t formally ‘qualified’, was so negative that his US boss nicknamed him “Black Cloud” (tip: Humour in organizations is often quite instructive around explaining culture).

Step #2: Future Proofing: Sometimes organizations are clear on what they want to ‘change’ but less certain about what they want to ‘become’. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Wing-Walker Problem’. Your will be familiar with the acrobats who did Ariel stunts on bi-planes (aircraft with 4 wings). For sure, they had incredible courage. But they also learned one key life lesson. Never let go of one thing until you have something else to grab onto! Changing the culture in an organisation is similar. You can’t just announce the ‘things that are broken’ without communicating what you want to become. What will a ‘better tomorrow’ look like? Surprisingly, working with high-performance organisations can be challenging under this heading. While it can be difficult to change a company that’s struggling, it is next to impossible to change a company that is showing all the outward signs of success. “Without the spur of a crisis or a period of great stress, most organisations — like most people — are incapable of changing the habits and attitudes of a lifetime” (John F. McDonnell).

Modified Expectations: I often tell senior teams that it’s not possible to change the entire culture; it simply doesn’t make sense. Culture is something, which is built up over time. It’s normally either the ‘shadow’ of a strong former leader (Hewlett Packard is probably the best known example) or the result of the organization learning to ‘survive’ in a particular environment over time. These issues are deeply embedded into the DNA of the organization and can’t simply be thrown overboard. So, in reality ‘changing’ an organization culture is an effort to identify which elements you want to ‘change’ and which elements you want to keep.

Step #3: Behaviour Modification: The final element in a cultural change programme is to plan to change people’s behaviour in line with the new culture. This is a bit like the old joke – “how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” “Only one – but the light bulb has to want to change!” The term ‘Behaviour Modification’ may sound like some social science experiment – but isn’t that what all leaders are engaged in? So, assuming you have solid ideas about the ‘new culture’ you want to create, what ‘levers’ are available to push people towards this? In a potential long list, the following issues are particularly potent:

Staff Engagement: People can only support something that they understand. So, telling the staff that you are on a mission to ‘change the culture’ may sound like something from Star Trek. You need to keep the language simple. And in crafting this, it might be wise to remember the adage from Blaise Pascal: “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others”. I never tire of the idea that the first principle in Psychology = ‘people don’t resist their own ideas’. Get the staff involved in shaping tomorrow and watch their resistance fall away.

Performance Management: What gets measured gets attention. You need to ensure that the ‘new elements’ of the organization culture are actively on the management scorecard.

Reward Systems: Pavlov demonstrated the impact of reward and conditioning with his salivating dogs; we know that rewards reinforce behaviours. The trick is to design the reward system to drive the new behaviours (tip: Expect A? Then reward A and stop rewarding B).

New ‘Rituals’: Some of you will remember a company called Gateway 2000. They had a big operation in Clonshaugh Industrial Estate in Coolock in Dublin. Gateway, a very innovative company, pioneered the sale of computers over the phone (Dell were ‘fast followers’ on this strategy and eventually became the dominant player). I had the contract to ‘train’ all of the young managers in Gateway, an eclectic group of nationalities. There was one young French manager who worked in the technical services area – helping customers who called in to diagnose faults. Sometimes it was simple stuff (“did you remember to insert the plug?”); sometimes the troubleshooting was more complex. As this service was free (customers rang a 1-800 number), the goal was to get people off the phone as quickly as possible. This manager noticed a ‘flaw’ in the ‘culture’ of the department that he’d recently taken over. People did not want to share mistakes; they wanted to cover up and not lose face. The solution became known as the ‘biscuits meeting’. Once a month, he ran a session whereby everyone on the team came to a meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to share/learn from the experience over the past 4 weeks. The process: Everyone ‘around’ the table had to tell a ‘war story’ which occurred since the last meeting. i.e. what was the biggest mistake they’d made in the last month? Some of the stories were just stupid; some were funny. All of them were real. At the end of the feedback, the group voted on the ‘silly story of the month’ and the ‘penalty’ imposed on the individual was that they had to buy the biscuits for the meeting (and put up with some good-natured ribbing). Through this simple idea, this manager had created ‘a safe place for dangerous truths’, making mistakes discussible and providing a way for the group to learn from this. Very Clever.

Storytelling: Since the beginning of human history, storytelling has been a powerful communications vehicle. You have to figure out what ‘new stories’ you need in your organization to reinforce the new culture that you are trying to create. Who are your heroes? And how can you keep those stories ‘fresh’ and interesting?

Bottom Line: Changing the Organization Culture is a potent weapon in your continuing search for competitiveness. Despite the fact that it looks outwardly complex, don’t be scared of this journey.


PS Lighter Notes: The Gravediggers: The Kerry Gravediggers strike is causing untold suffering. Their spokesperson was adamant that until their claims were addressed, they are only dealing with emergency cases!

Priest’s Retirement Speech (courtesy of Larry McGivern): A Priest was being honored at his retirement dinner after 25 years in the parish. A leading local politician and member of the congregation was chosen to make the presentation at the dinner. However, he was delayed, so the Priest decided to say his own few words while they waited:

“I got my first impression of this parish from the first confession I heard here. I thought I had been assigned to a terrible place. The first person that entered my confessional told me he had stolen a television set and, when questioned by the police, was able to lie his way out of it. He had stolen money from his parents; embezzled from his employer; had an affair with his boss’s wife; taken illegal drugs and was arrested several times for public nudity. I was appalled that one person could do so many awful things. But as the days went on, I learned that the people here were not all like that. I had, indeed, come to a fine parish full of good and loving people.”

Just at that point, the politician arrived full of apologies. He immediately began to make the presentation:“I’ll never forget the first day our parish Priest arrived,” said the politician. “In fact, I had the honor of being the first person to go to him for confession.”

Moral: Don’t Be Late

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