I always cringe a bit inside when someone says, “We need a culture change and that’s why we can’t _____.” I usually hear this from individuals who want to embed some practice in the organization but who have encountered resistance.
It’s easier to say that the company has a culture problem than it is to dig underneath the complaints to figure out where the resistance is coming from. It’s easier to blame an abstraction rather than the individuals who are responsible for supporting, modeling and reinforcing change. There’s a mystique about culture that leads people to believe that it’s much more fixed than it is.
Culture is composed of behaviors and beliefs.
In an organizational context, “culture” is nothing more than “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” Conventional wisdom says that changing these behaviors and beliefs is difficult and time-consuming.
But often that’s because we believe that it will be difficult and time-consuming, and therefore we don’t start doing the things that will change those attitudes and beliefs. We think we need a formal “Management of Change” program first, or that we need to hire a consultant to help us craft exactly the right messages and events. It doesn’t have to be this hard, especially if you are in a position of formal or informal leadership.
Culture change starts with the behaviors and beliefs of leadership.
For leaders, the most important thing you can do to change the culture is change yourself. Begin modeling the behaviors and beliefs that you want your teams to use. Then begin pulling the behaviors from your teams, in the questions you ask, the feedback you deliver and the expectations you set. Finally, begin reinforcing this change in your company’s reward structures.
Let’s say you’ve grown up in an organization where the belief “the next quarter’s results take precedence over everything else” has been part of the organizational culture. That’s led to problems, such as pushing products on the market to hit launch dates that had known cost or quality problems to fulfill customer orders, or seriously discounting proposals for customizations to win the business.
These problems are now serious enough to affect your quarterly results, so they have everyone’s attention! But you know that this focus on short-term results has to change or these problems won’t be fixed.
It’s easier to change the culture when it’s in the way of results.
Now you’re the CTO, responsible for leading teams of people who have all been trained to do whatever is necessary to hit launch dates, and ignore the long-term consequences of cost and quality problems. You have buy-in from the CEO and the rest of his staff to make that change. The most important thing all of you can do is to begin acting like long-term results matter.
This is going to be hard. It will feel strange at first. Your instincts will tell you to put out one fire and move onto the next one, instead of taking time to make sure that the root cause of the fire has been addressed so that it won’t come back the moment your back is turned. Everyone on your team has the same instinct.
The change starts with your most visible decisions.
In this case, the most important thing that you can do is to make your own decisions so that they reflect a long-term perspective. This means accepting that your quarterly numbers are artificially high, and that new numbers will be lower for a time, but also more real, reflecting the true costs of running the business. It may mean missing a launch date, or losing some proposals for customizations.
In product development, it will definitely mean more time and attention to the earliest phases to prevent problems in execution phases, a different relationship with the customer on custom orders, and investing in some crash programs to reduce production and warranty costs.
People need to see that you are consistent and persistent.
You’ll have a backlog of quality and cost issues to fix, people who need to be trained on fire prevention, instead of just firefighting, and customers to re-educate. Those efforts will pay off in stronger and more sustainable quarterly results, but it will take time — not years, but not just one quarter. Everyone needs to see that you and the other leaders are committed to taking that time.
Then you need to ask questions about long-term impact and prevention, so that people know that you expect them to take the time to find the answers. Finally, you need to stop rewarding the firefighters and instead reward the people who work on fire prevention.
As you act in these new ways, your beliefs about yourself and your organization will start to change. As people see you and the other leaders act in these new ways, their beliefs about you and the organization will start to change.
Anyone who’s had a job working for someone else has already learned to watch what leaders do to see if they’re serious about what they say. This is why most MoC programs produce more light than heat: people go to the events and listen to the presentations, but they don’t see any change in behavior among the leaders.
Culture change starts with you.
This time, you’ll back up what you say with actions that they can observe, questions that demand new answers from them, and incentives for more of the new behaviors.
As you begin asking for new behaviors from your team, they will start to change their behaviors, and their beliefs about themselves and the organization will start to change. Then you’ll sit in a meeting one day listening to a presentation about the latest initiative to prevent warranty claims, and realize that the culture has changed.