All dressed up and nowhere to go

or, the traps of culture change

How many companies have realised that the world has economically and socially changed, and therefore, that new ways of working have to be in place? All FTSEs.

Today, global companies understand the need to ‘break the silos’, or ‘start a collaborative culture’. Not ‘breaking news’ material, but unless you are managing Google, Facebook or similar companies, it doesn’t come quite naturally.
Some organisations are in such a rush to make things change (the ‘burning platform’ is widely misunderstood, see the original meaning here), that they elaborate and implement new organisation structures, new global processes, and new systems such as standardisation tools.

As soon as it’s done, companies start referring to ‘our new culture’. But what it is, at best, is a new Leadership culture, or a new organisation structure. A real culture change process takes much longer. The reason is simple: Culture has evolved, slowly, steadily and organically and its roots go as deep as the number of years the company existed. And the change needs to reach as deep as the roots.

My definition of corporate culture might appear cynical, and it’s not borrowed from any books or approved definition – so nothing academic here:
Corporate or organisational culture is something fundamentally engrained from a deep-rooted legacy of people behaviour, supported by the systems and processes they generate in order to avoid change.

Or as an IMD professor told me when I shared my thoughts, “Culture has strategy for lunch”. 

Changing systems and processes as a mean to drive culture change is the first trap – they should be in place to support the culture change, not to drive it.

The second trap is to ignore the only agents actually able to drive a culture change: people. Imposing systems and processes – however convincing they are – on staff is not going to provide the culture change so desperately needed.
You can come up with the most ingenious organisation model and have the best processes and systems in place, they will not change the culture. In best cases, and with a good communication team at hand, you create awareness about the need to change, the will to change, and you might even tweak the mindset in some pockets of the organisation – guess where? Usually in the upper management.

Leadership vision and behaviour are of course essential to culture change. Obviously, nothing will happen if nobody ‘walks the talk’ at the top- but very often, this is where culture change stalls, as it remains a leadership conversation. So what to do? Systems and processes to allow culture change to strive should of course be there.

Leadership vision, to craft the right change, and behaviour, to support the change, are essential components. However, the real drivers are people in mid-management and below.
The key is having them actively involved, not just informed. There is no off-the-shelf solution, as it depends on the existing culture at the starting point, the geographical coverage, the existing structure (either as the legacy or newly in place as part of the new culture).
I’ve witnessed a few good examples to draw from, and as a consequence came up with some communication models that could work globally:

1- Build the new culture by drawing from people’s knowledge: Find who your experts are, give them a voice, and build strategic content around them – internally and externally. These subject matter experts will share across locations and functions. They will build their own knowledge networks. The good news is that companies already have these experts at hand and they know who they are; they hired them.

2- Identify the critical success factors for your new structure/organisation and build a dialogue around them. These could relate to your operations, or processes. Start inviting the key stakeholders, cross-functions/regions. And build a vision together.

3- ‘Forget’ the top leadership and focus on mid-management. You remember the change curve? Well, as a leader or communication professional, you are already ahead of it. Mid-managers are not. Depending on the size of your organisation, they aren’t yet aware of what you want to achieve – and they are not even on any part of the curve. If focus on mid-management is where the real key of success lies, this is also where it can make everything fail. Invite them to fairs, or knowledge conferences on selected themes. They will not only appreciate being given a voice but best practice gems will foster. Carry on the conversation online, if the nature of your operations allows it, once you created the appetite.

There are many more and better examples around, but you know the principle: bottom-up communication, involvement from people in lower layers of the organisation, on a large scale. This needs to come from a solid change communication strategy, a simple and structured plan, starting by articulating the vision and making it relevant and exciting to all.

In a nutshell – people first, tools second.

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