BOOK REVIEW: You can change your company culture - but not in the way you think

The Critical Few: Energize Your Company's Culture by Choosing What Really Matters. By Jon Katzenbach, James Thomas, and Gretchen Anderson

You might well have seen it too. The company develops a compelling strategy, with stretch, but achievable goals, and complete with a solid plan of action. "This one will work!" is the prevailing sentiment. And it doesn't.

A similar scenario accompanies a large swathe of commitments to change.  "A powerful common thread links these scenarios," write the authors. "When there is a big change to make, a change of any type, powerful emotional forces in the organizational culture seem, at first blush, to resist."

While the actual commitment to change was a relatively quick process, the execution never is. Making a commitment to change stick, is a constant challenge to management, and one the seems to defy efforts to address it.

The primary cause that underlies the 'way things are done around here', are deep seated emotions that are not amenable to being upended by rational arguments and theoretical complexity.

On the other hand, positive emotions can energise any effort and give it the best chances of succeeding.

The myth of corporate culture

In our attempt to tame and change the corporate culture that is holding back the implementation of the strategy or any other commitment to change, we have made the cognitive error of thinking in terms of a single 'corporate culture'. This is never so, except in micro-enterprises. Institutions of any size are by definition multicultural.

There is, for example, the aggressive culture of John's sales group. The slow but steady culture of Amy's admin department. The solid, hard-driving culture of the executive team. All materially different.

"If you really want to change your company, you'll need a high level of empathy, great persistence and resolve, rigorous focus, and a practical methodology that brings out the best in your current cultural situation," explains Jon Katzenbach, a doyen of the international consulting industry.

Changing any organisation requires emotional commitment, not rational compliance. Knowing how much trouble the company is in if they don't make serious changes now, is never enough to effect change.

So, what is?

Cognitive shifts

The first cognitive shift is to forgo any desire to make a swift switch from the current excuse culture, to a personal ownership culture, any time soon. If the change is worth doing, it is worth a multi-year commitment.  (I like doing a financial projection of the cost of not changing with clients, because the unspoken response is often: If it takes that long why bother?! The numbers never lie…)

If it were easy to correct a flawed culture, everyone would do it. It is because it is so hard that few succeed and reap the rewards.

The startling insight Katzenbach brings to the subject is how elegantly simple this can be. (Simple, not easy.) He knows this because he has done this successfully, over decades. To start the process, the authors explain, requires attention to the emotional forces in your current culture and have them working with you not against you.

There are undoubtedly some reservoirs of genuine positive emotional energy somewhere in your current cultural situation that can be harnessed. This is an important recognition because we tend to fixate on the squeaky wheel.

Three-part process

The book provides a usable three-part process that, with a combination of persistence and patience, will achieve what all the whiz-bang, or detailed plans of action never did. Find a critical few traits and use them. Identify a few critical behaviours. Nurture a few 'authentic, informal leaders".

A trait is "the scaffolding for how any group of people thinks, feels, and behaves." These are the stable and prominent qualities that are shared across a company. The use of the word trait is significant – it is similar to a "family resemblance" across the company. Traits could be a casual approach to time, or finger-pointing, a positive feeling towards the company, or ambitiousness.

To identify the traits, get people to tell stories about what's important to them. What do they tell their friends about the company? What do they love about coming to work? What frustrates them at work? "In every situation, a patient and thorough diagnostic has surfaced traits that were, to the surprise and agreement of all, common and consistent across the full span of the organisation."

Use every means available to learn of the traits: What do people display on their desks? Do people move quickly or slowly to make decisions? What speeds up or slows down the process?

Emotional energy is released as traits. When the common traits are described back to people, they will remind everyone of their sense of belonging to something larger than themselves.

Then there are the critical behaviours. Successful organisational change requires the use of clear changes in specific behaviours. "People are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking, than to think their way into a new way of acting." Identify a few critical behaviours. Each begins with a verb and should be understandable by the newest employee.

Traits are neutral; desired behaviours are positive.

You start by compiling a list of behaviours that you believe will encourage success. Ask questions about what gets in the way of people doing their best work or what keeps the company from achieving what you aspire to. When people can feel an emotional as well as rational alignment between their company's identity and purpose and their own individual behaviours, they feel connected.

Then get the company to use just a few behaviours with discipline and regularity. Look for those that generate positive emotions and connectivity between people. You might even have the team members looked one another in the eye and committed to holding one another accountable for these behaviours and alerting them when they don't.

If constant interruptions interfere with the team doing their best work, the behaviour could be always asking sincerely: When is a good time to ask you a question? ("I'll be done in 30 minutes.") This is a good behaviour if a company's trait is a commitment to quality work.

The third part of the culture change process is to identify "authentic informal leaders" (AILs). "Most leaders don't think to engage AILs who are off the radar of senior management," the authors note. AILs are informal leaders within a group, people who are good with people and are able to connect easily with them and influence them.  

Identify the AILs and let these people know that their input matters. Every organisation has people whose social capital and emotional intuition sets them apart from colleagues. Engaging AILs can help the organisation accomplish what would otherwise be considered impossible. They are that important!

AILs need to be identified, supported and nurtured. Because of their influence in a subset of the company – a unit or team, they can punch above their weight and impact your effort to transform your organisation's culture.

The fact that culture determines a company's success is an idea whose time has come. This clever book offers a workable approach.

Insights              High +---- Low

Practical              High ++--- Low

*Views expressed are his own.

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