Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion whereby three seasoned organization development practitioners shared their insights on culture change at the Capital City OD Network meeting. Each of these individuals were seasoned internal consultants for major corporations or academic institutions, and each was responsible for initiating, facilitating, and overseeing culture change programs in their organizations. I was moved and inspired by their wisdom and wish to share some of that wisdom with the blog’s readers.
Lesson 1. Build the Infrastructure, Be the Bridge
One of the panelists shared that he saw his role as helping to build the infrastructure for change. He described how culture change comes about with both a shift in thinking and in behaviors. While he can not control others’ behaviors, he certainly can control his own. This was one of the key insights he had after attending institution-wide workshops and events regarding the new culture they were trying to build to execute the new organizational strategy. He kept the various large group meetings and training events top of mind whenever he was interacting with his clients. He would purposefully use language and model new ways of behaving and interacting. When appropriate, he would ask questions of his clients regarding the conclusions they had reached after being exposed to the institution’s initiatives, and what they believed they could control or direct within their span of influence. He focused on synchronization – between his local constituents and clients and the university as a whole – so that the institution could begin operating in a more connected fashion. He summed up his actions in building this infrastructure by saying that his role was to be a bridge for his clients – between the clients’ local agenda and the university’s goals – to connect today’s reality to tomorrow’s possibilities.
As change agents for our organizations, our role often is to be the bridge between the old and the new. How we construct this bridge and the foundation upon which it sets directly impacts our clients’ ability to traverse across it and reach the destination. This panelist’s comments echo the sentiments of Charlie and Edie Seashore’s work on self as an instrument and Edgar Schein’s classic writings on process consultation. At our best, we can be a powerful medium to help our clients achieve the change they long for in their lives. At our worst, we can inhibit, block, and even prevent that change from happening. We have a great responsibility to uphold in this arena.
Lesson 2. Courageously Advocate for Alignment
The second panelist chose to share insights with the group on where he had “screwed up” culture change initiatives in the past. His cautionary tale included three potential traps for the change agent: 1) focusing on events, meetings, or activities as opposed to the entire journey and process, 2) putting HR in charge of a culture change program that ultimately needs to be driven and managed within the business, and 3) allowing existing policies and procedures to remain unchanged even in the face of misalignment to the new stated goals of the initiative.
This panelist was extremely candid in his appraisal of his own past performance, as he believed that earlier in his career he lacked the courage and conviction to “push executives to change policies that were not in sync with the new direction.” Unfortunately, this is a common experience. Organizations on one hand advocate a new strategy and direction for their people, but on the other hand fail to set people up for success to achieve that strategy. One of the easiest ways to destroy an initiative is to actually encourage people to do things that undermine the new direction. Stephen Kerr’s classic article, On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B summarizes this phenomenon well. Essentially, it reminds us that people do those things for which they are rewarded. Not getting the desired behavior from your employees? It is quite possible that your policies, procedures, rewards, and consequences are out of alignment with stated goals and objectives.
Lesson 3. Eat the Elephant Ear, Not the Entire Elephant
Just the mention of the phrase “culture change” can stop people in their tracks. “What? You want to change how we do things around here? Good luck!” The third panelist quite eloquently explained how approaching culture change in bite sized pieces can be the fastest and most direct route to the goal. As part of a large retail corporation, this executive focused on culture change in concert with the launch of a rebranding strategy for one of its divisions. The culture change work was positioned as an enabler to allow the new strategy to take root and flourish. Because it was connected to real business goals and measurable results, it gained traction and attention. In addition, the rebranding was a success and consequently, the activities undertaken to help accomplish it were highly regarded. Sometimes eating the elephant can be overwhelming, so focusing on just the elephant ear at first – perhaps with a sprinkle of powdered sugar – can be much more appetizing and digestible.
In a few short hours, I gleaned valuable insights from these three leaders that would have taken me many years to acquire on my own, if ever. I encourage readers to contribute their own lessons learned from helping develop and instill new cultures in their organizations.