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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