Culture Change Series: Part 1 — Make it simpler. Make it happen.

Dandelion clock in morning sun

Let’s start by talking about culture and what it means.

Every day, we breathe in order to survive. The air goes in and out of our lungs. We know the air is there, but we never think about it. The air allows us to do everything we do; and at the same time, we don’t even notice it. That’s the same with culture. Culture enables an organization to function. But as the air we breathe, it becomes invisible, and we forget how it affects everything we do.

We define culture as the messages, mostly nonverbal, that people in an organization receive about what is valued. Then people adapt in order to “fit in” (i.e., belong).

How is culture created? As an example, I’d like to refer you to the book “An Italian Education” by Tim Parks. It describes the life of a British expat family in Italy. The parents are starting to notice their children becoming more and more “Italian.” Initially, they are puzzled as to where they are picking it up. So then they tried to understand it: classmates at school, the neighbors, the media, and religion, among other things. In order to fit in, the children started to unconsciously embed some of the behaviors of the influencers that surround them, based on what works for them. Can you think about how all this is at play in any organization?

Think back for a moment to the first day you arrived at the company for which you now work. What did you notice? The way people talk, relate to each other, make decisions? What about the general communications? And the office look and feel? And what the boss does to be successful? And who gets promoted?

Understanding how culture is created and how it influences employees can become a lever as you work on culture change in your organization.

In recent years, culture has become a hot topic. You hear people talk about it often. Most organizations are involved in some kind of culture initiative. This is because we are getting more and more conscious about how important it is to get new strategies to work, to adapt to the new fast changing world, to be aware of the behaviors we are driving, by the context and environment we have created so far and for the strategies that worked in the past to be successful. There is much more consciousness about how the conditions, the environment, the incentives, the values and messages people receive are creating meaning for people to do what they do. The sense of alignment with a common purpose and way of working can become a competitive advantage. If the world is changing and our organizational strategies are changing, then our culture needs to shift to serve this new world of possibilities. We need to recreate the conditions for people to flourish and flow, making sense to a new world.

At the same time, the more and more we talk with people in organizations, in HR, Senior Leaders or CEOs, they all feel it’s hard to make all this change happen at the speed they expect. Many times it looks more like a burden than a great opportunity. How can we make culture change simpler? How can we make it happen?

In this series of articles, we will look at five beliefs (stories we tell ourselves as if they were absolutely true) that may even become myths. When it comes to culture change, the myths make it harder and may even impact the way we approach culture change and the tools we use for it. Are you ready to do some myth busting?

Not so fast. Going over the speed limit while trying to change the culture will cause chaos.

Before we dive into the myths, there are some things to consider.

Nobody is a culture expert on day one. Most of us have taken a biology class in school and can name a decent amount of body parts, organs, etc. However, this doesn’t make us capable of performing surgery. Surgery requires a different skill level. The same applies to culture. We have some knowledge, but we are not anywhere near expert level. In our experience, this is something that is being overestimated. An organization will assign someone, often from HR, as the person in charge of culture change. Having the title does not make them an expert, but you can be an expert in the future, by knowing a bit more every day. Can you imagine how much more you can know in one year if you consider everything to be opportunity to learn more about culture?

You can start by acknowledging that you don’t need to know it all on day one. This is hard because in big organizations, people are expected to know. Actually, this is the first step for the change you would like to drive. The danger is when you pretend you know but you don’t. So we suggest, that you just stop pretending!

Start seeking the expertise. Think about what information you need to learn in order to be capable of delivering on this great assignment.

Don’t decide to focus on everything all at once. You can’t eat ice cream in one big bite (brain freeze anyone?), nor can you with culture. It might be overwhelming when you are in the middle of it, like standing in a crowd of people. Imagine what it would be like if you look out of the airplane window, when you are 30,000 feet off the ground, and you see the different landscapes of cities and suburbs. Start by looking at the bigger picture before you zoom in. Where do you want to focus your attention? I like to use the metaphor of the flashlight. If culture is a big, dark room, you can flip the switch and light up the entire room, but that becomes quickly overwhelming. If you take your flashlight, you can focus on a specific item or task without being distracted. But for that, you first need to see the big room; and then the opportunities will come. Because, what you focus on expands.

A new process doesn’t change a culture. Processes help and are an integral part of culture change. But to create real and sustainable change, there is another layer.

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We all know what happened to the Titanic. It hit an iceberg. They did not see it coming, partly due to the weather. But they also failed to recognize that there is much more to an iceberg than what is visible above the water line. We use this analogy when we talk about culture change. What you see on the surface is the product or outcome (i.e., business results). This is what we call “have.”

Right below the water line, you will find the processes, systems and symbols that are needed to create change. For example, for a company facing rapid growth, agility is a key competence, but agility does not thrive in a bureaucratic environment. What internal process is causing this, and what can be changed in the process to make things less cumbersome? This is what we call the “do” level. This is where the adaptive change happens.

Now we are diving deeper into the ocean, where the foundation of the iceberg is. Just like your operating system on your computer, you can change the programs or software; but in order to create real change, the hardware needs to change. The ways in which people think and act are the hardware; and unless you change the hardware, you will not be able to create a new way of “doing” to achieve different results in the future.

What mindsets are needed from these individuals to allow for change to happen? Going back to the company that is facing rapid growth and where agility is key not to lose customers against the competitors, let’s say the one thing that creates that is the agility to make decisions. In a command and control environment, where every decision needs to go to the boss and be checked internally, this would be very hard to do. You need to create a mindset of trust and empowerment, believing that fast decisions pay back much more than some of the mistakes that could happen, and believing that you will learn from it. Coming from this mindset, you can create the conditions for this and the conversations needed to make this happen. This is the “be” level. This is where we talk about transformational change.

I have three simple questions for you today:

  • What are the main sources of culture creation in your organization, and what are some of the main culture levers you see to start creating the change you need?
  • As you engage in culture change, where have you started and why?
  • What changes does the organization need to make at the “do” level, then what changes need to be made at the “be” level to make culture change happen?

Stay tuned for the first culture belief/myth: “All aboard on the culture train.”

 

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INNOVATION (CHANGE) IS EASIER WHEN… YOUR BUSINESS IS MORE CONSCIOUS THAN WILLIAM HUNG

by Raphael Louis Vitton and Oseas Ramirez Assad

Picture1Remember William Hung (aka Hung Hing Cheong), the now world-famous American Idol singer of Ricky Martin’s hit song “She Bangs”? We love William. Over a decade and a half ago (early 2004), he entertained us all with his charisma (he says) and with his unconscious example of the Dunning-Kruger effect (others say).

 

The Dunning-Kruger effect is “a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is” — Wikipedia. Psychologists Dunning and Kruger say that “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self.” They write that for a given skill, unconsciously incompetent people will:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only AFTER they are exposed to training for that skill

UNCONSCIOUSLY INCOMPETENT TO CONSCIOUSLY COMPETENT

William Hung’s (and many other Idol’s) example of unconscious incompetence on live TV in front of millions of people satisfies at least one of the primary premises of the show. It lets the audience feel superior and relieved (for the moment) that at least we’re not THAT clueless about our own talents and abilities — as far as we know anyway. However, the Dunning-Kruger effect (aka the American Idol effect), like most cognitive biases, is a condition that we ALL can suffer from in our professions as well. Thankfully, we can all overcome it too, with a deliberate approach to training, rewiring default/reactive habits, surrounding ourselves with reliable feedback loops, increased mental complexity, increased levels of emotional intelligence and expanded curiosity muscles. (Note: The best way to develop curiosity muscles is by first working on the humility muscles.)

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We are often unconsciously unaware of our own incompetence, in fact, that David Dunning goes on to say in the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast that “of all the irony of the things we don’t know, the one thing we definitely don’t know is where the borderline is between our knowledge and our ignorance.” That, he says, applies to everything including our decision-making in everyday life, not to mention the highly valued business decision-making arena of our professional life. It applies to our role as leaders of our family, our community and our company.

This psychological insight illuminates one reason why so many executives have heard themselves (including myself) say that innovation is hard. Maybe we say that because we don’t want to take responsibility or blame. Maybe it’s because we like to self-congratulate and brag about ourselves for doing the hard things that others won’t. Maybe we’ve bought into the party line. Either way though, innovation (change) is not hard or easy. It just is what it is. “Hard” or “easy” is not an attribute of innovation or change but merely a relative comparison of two things: 1) the challenge and 2) our ability/inability to respond to the challenge effectively.

Whether the challenge is to sing a hit song on the American Idol stage, squat 300 pounds or respond to changing market conditions in my industry, there are two ways to approach it: I can say, “singing at a world-class level is hard,” ignoring my own competence/ability/skill level, or I can say, “singing at an elite level is hard for me. My vocal skills/muscles aren’t skilled/strong enough to sing at that level yet.” But we don’t say that. We say it’s too hard to do. “HARD” is only relative to our ability to respond to the challenge of singing the song (on key), lifting the weight or accomplishing the innovation goal. If our muscles aren’t ready for the innovation challenge, then the challenge/change is harder for us. But that same challenge is NOT hard for many other leaders. Change (innovation) is not hard for teams and leaders who operate from higher levels of consciousness — less subject to pitfalls of outdated thinking patterns. Conscious leaders make better innovation leaders. Their cognitive muscles, mental models, mindsets, relationship/teaming productivity and fear/stress management skills are developed/trained and ready to respond effectively to VUCA (i.e., volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). But you can’t work on it if you don’t even notice it.

NOTICING THE GAP IS A GOOD THING

We likely don’t even realize that we are blaming innovation/change for our own lack of ability to respond effectively to changes in our business environment and market conditions. Years of neglecting the change-readiness individual and collective leadership development work are a root cause that explains the leadership complexity gap. That’s why we are unconscious and unaware — we don’t know we are. If we don’t notice it, we can’t work on it. Conversely, if we do notice it, then we can choose whether or not to work on it. Either way, it’s better than falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect.


We can’t just try harder.
That doesn’t work. Trying harder is not the same as deliberately training our innovation/change muscles to be able to respond better.

Experienced innovation leaders and conscious business Jedi (like Oseas Ramirez Assad, co-founder of Startup // Cisco) inside of David’s (startups) and Goliath’s (large corporations) will agree that innovation/change is easier when you:

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REactivating your company’s startup DNA will require you to face entrenched cultural norms, fear of change, career risk and other obstacles that will require you to be working from well beyond your current level. You will need to be working from your “next level” of thinking — more open and more grounded as a conscious leader. This grounding is the platform to recognize old/new paradigms (yours and others), to be less blissfully ignorant, to engage in difficult conversations/healthy debates, to untangle explicit agenda versus hidden/unconscious competing commitments, their feelings versus emotional triggers, etc. Getting to our next level of Jedi thinking and behaving takes practice.

  • Even the biggest companies were startups once
  • Design a grass roots effort and apply startup innovation best practices that are right for your company (e.g., lean startup, BMC, design thinking, service design)

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Focus on training mindsets, biases and core values (to help amplify the new growth strategy and fulfill the company purpose). This is an essential part of an innovation-centric lifestyle. Innovation can only be driven by a conscious leader who embodies the right mindsets, is aware of his/her own biases, and actively works to defuse them. Otherwise, people will immediately spot the incongruousness and slew of organizational contradictions. This will speak louder than the mindset itself.

  • Build a strong cultural foundation of expanded capabilities that help increase conscious awareness, broaden cognitive diversity, and deepen mental complexity and emotional intelligence
  • Apply startup constraints and bend/ignore rules as long as it’s clearly aligned with shared goals and core values

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Target corporate antibodies (e.g., the fear of failure). You will have to earn the right to influence the corporate system. Even if you have the hierarchical authority, you will need moral and social authority (e.g., trust, respect, confidence) for the community of people to want to follow you. You could try and force them to follow you via command and control techniques, but compliance does not generate the same energy or integrity as inviting voluntary commitment.

The moral/social authority that is earned by being a more conscious leader will always be surprisingly more powerful and sustainable.

  • Address the organizational contradictions, competing initiatives, undiscussables and cultural/social norms (policies) designed to preserve/protect the status quo
  • Don’t just train alone; train together (cross-functionally) in a way that builds relationships and engagement across the enterprise (breaking down silos)

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CONSCIOUS LEADERS MAKE BETTER INNOVATION LEADERS

They consistently deliver better results to the organization — it is as straightforward as that — for the sake of better business outcomes. The current leadership complexity gap clearly suggests that innovation leadership and transformation is a learned capability — a muscle group that has to be developed/trained for the gap to be closed.

The only way for our businesses to be more conscious is for our leaders to be more awake/self-aware. We need more men and women working from higher levels of consciousness — especially those who are responsible for implementing innovation strategies and those pursuing a new master plan of any kind.

The goal is to help leaders of organizations see more, plus collaborate better, plus feel stronger, becoming more agile in the face of uncertainty and fear. “Getting in the reps” of deliberate practice is what helps leaders more quickly and more effectively get to the complex problem-solving.

We need to pursue mastery of the fundamentals of conscious business. This practical approach helps leaders respond more resourcefully under stress, and it upgrades their operating systems with the intent of shifting to a culture with higher standards of performance, relationships and purpose.

Then again, we could be wrong. What if William Hung can sing really well…and we are the ones who are all tone deaf?

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Moving Through Cross-Functional Mindset Differences on Work Teams—Starting the Conversation

I think that most of the important work that is done in organizations these days is done by teams. Even if people are not all sitting together in a room working simultaneously, their work is shared with others, revised, edited, informed, poked, prodded, enhanced, refined or otherwise manipulated into a product that features input from a number of people. And almost always, those other people think somewhat differently than we do. Maybe that’s because of where they’re from, or where they’ve worked, or how they’ve been trained, or the experience they’ve had in this organization or prior organizations, their age/generation, etc. In other words, their mindsets are different based on their background and experience.

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In my work, I have often seen the impact of these mindset differences. And, importantly, another area of meaningful mindset difference is based on our functions. To be very clear, I am generalizing in making this observation. Not all finance people are sticklers for detail, and not all marketing people operate in the world of possibilities and potential. But many of them do—much to the dismay of people with other functional backgrounds. I think most of us would agree that organizations are much better off with the diversity of functional mindsets providing input into decision-making, idea generation, execution and other critical aspects of organizational success. But these differences can cause problems.

Have you ever been frustrated because someone across the table from you, or in one of your important meetings, rejects an idea on the basis of their legal regulatory experience? Or have you ever been flustered by someone on the team who insists that something can be done without providing any specifics about how? These are examples of cross-functional mindset challenges.

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So what might we do about it? How can we work better together, have more shared success, as well as retain our sanity?

First, slow down, breathe and recognize that differences are part of our shared human experience, whether that’s convenient for us or not. Remember that those people across the table are almost always good human beings who are participating in a way that they believe is useful and effective, from the point of view of their function and their experience.

Second, take action to understand their priorities—the interests that underlie their positions. When you hear a “no” that feels like a door slamming, ask for a few reasons why that answer was given. Ask what would have to be true in order for you to hear a “yes” instead. There are other useful questions you could ask, of course. The important thing is to listen carefully to the responses. Doing so will not only provide a basis for understanding the other person’s thinking but also will very importantly provide you with key information about how to frame your response to them, such as a new proposal or suggestion.

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Of course, this is easy to read here in a short blog and harder to do when the clock is ticking, the pressure is on, and we want to be finished with this conversation yesterday. Hang in there; make an effort. Perhaps others in the room will recognize how you are trying to move past differences and promote greater understanding and better results. They can join in as well. Share your intention with them and let your team know what you were trying to do and why. Chances are they will get on board.

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