Energy Flows Where Attention Goes

Energy Flows Where Attention Goes

Now that we have busted the belief that you need everyone on board in order to start a culture transformation process, we will add an additional layer to that belief — the belief or myth that you need to start such a process at the top, with the most senior leaders, the CEO or the Executive Committee.

But do you really need them to start?

Of course, it is an ideal scenario to have the top leadership of your organization leading the culture transformation efforts — the leaders who are role-modeling the behaviors of the desired culture and are fully engaged in the process. In our experience helping global companies with culture transformation, this only happen in about half of the cases.

Remember the story in the previous article about the large manufacturing organization and how we engaged with a single team at the time. Other teams took notice and engaged with the HR team to set the teams up with their own leadership development programs, and slowly the culture change in the organization began to grow more and more obvious. After four years of working with different teams, business units and leaders, the CEO started to take notice. The overall performance of the organization kept improving, and he realized the new organizational culture was the driver for this. The organization’s board, including the CEO, is now embarking on their own leadership development journey to take the culture transformation to another level. This program will cascade to other leaders in the organization who have not yet participated. The HR team never lost sight of their ultimate desire to change the culture, but they focused their energy on those willing to engage, eventually impacting the 56,000+ employees.

Instead of focusing on who is not on board (e.g., your CEO), how can you focus on who is? Just like the innovators and early adopters, can you find a leader or a team that has the energy, engagement and appetite to start something new? The more you focus on who is on board instead of focusing on who is not, the more likely you will see those who are, and there are more than you had imaged. You just didn’t see them.

Just think about when you had set the intention of buying a new car, for example. All of a sudden, you are much more conscious about the cars around you — the colors, the ones you want, the ones you don’t like, the model, the make. You see those same cars every day on your commute, but when you actually put your focus on them, you are more aware or conscious of them.

This kind of thinking will allow you to become, what we like to call, a secret agent. Your bigger goal is to engage the organization in a culture transformation process. But not having the top leadership on board might make this seem like an impossible mission. Even if for now you start with one leader, a single team or a business unit, you never lose sight of this ultimate goal.

Here are some questions to reflect on:

  • Where do you focus your attention? Is your attention helping or preventing you from achieving your goals?
  • What is already happening in your organization that is not being highlighted?
  • What stories are critical and not being told?
All Aboard? The Culture Train Doesn’t Need to be Full to Leave

All Aboard? The Culture Train Doesn’t Need to be Full to Leave

As we referred to in our first article, culture is everywhere, just like the air we breathe. The problem is that we forgot.

The second layer to this is that we often hear that people need to “start” working on the culture. However, the culture has always been there and is continuously influenced by everyone — the way people behave, lead and manage; what leaders do (not what they say); how an organization compensates their employees; internal communications; who gets promoted; its values on the website versus what it has really done every day; the external marketing; and every single thing that lets people know “what’s valued around here.” This is all part of the culture. Culture is like a live organism; it is always evolving, moving and shifting. Whether you choose it or not, it’s there.

The question then becomes, are you going to let the culture drive you, or do you want to drive the culture and have it be more aligned with your business needs and emerging challenges?

To engage on a culture transformation journey, you will need to identify and assess the current culture. It is very important to understand where you are.

  • Did a new CEO, with a new vision and direction, join?
  • Is your CEO leaving and would like to leave a legacy?
  • Is the market steering you in a new direction?
  • Is the company growing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up?

The answers will be unique for each organization and its leaders. What is critical is to understand what’s driving the change. Why are you embarking on this journey? Why do people need to be part of this? Having a case for change is a very important first step. The second one is to understand who is ready to understand it.

Once you have identified these points, the next step is to identify your key sponsors and champions who can connect with the need. We hear it over and over again — the belief or myth — that you need to have everyone on board to start the initiative. However, it is exactly that — a belief or myth — and it gets in the way of making change happen.

In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell talks about The Law of the Few. In order to create sustainable change, you need to look for the connectors, mavens and salesmen — or as Everett Rogers developed his theory on “Diffusion of Innovations,” illustrated in the bell curve below.

Both authors describe that you do not need to have everyone on board. You need to look for the innovators and early adopters in your organization. Who can you work with to start the change?

As an example of how this works, I remember when we started working with a large manufacturing organization through the HR department. The team was really eager to start working on their culture. The main concern was that not everyone in the organization was ready to engage or even talk about culture change. Together, we identified a group of middle managers who were eager to change and develop new skills and who, at the same time, had a relevant influence in the business. We co-created a specific leadership development program for them. This group became the innovators and helped us connect with the early adopters. Through their leadership journey, they learned new mindsets, skills and behaviors. And as they implemented those new skills in their way of leading their departments and teams, it influenced the culture. Others in the organization noticed how the innovators and early adopters became more effective in their jobs, were more agile in their decision-making, and their overall performance improved, and they wanted the same.

The main learning is that it is never about having it perfect and everyone on board on day one but having the right people on the train to depart.

Here are a few questions to reflect on:

  • Where can I start this journey?
  • What are some easy and simple steps I can take?
  • Who are the innovators and early adopters in my organization? Are they getting the attention they need?
  • Who is currently on my culture train and how can I leverage them?
  • Who do I want to pick up at the next station to get on the train?

Stay tuned for the next culture belief/myth: “The need to start at the top.”

Video transcription: We started this project with a leadership team from a search engine organization. He was client of ours for many, many years, and he moved his role, and he told me, Fran, I think now we are ready to do something here, because I think I need some support to change the way we are dealing with some of the issues we are facing based on the market.”

Okay. So, we have a first meeting, and then he said, “Okay, after the first session with the leadership team, I want to do something with 80 people on my team in Munich.” So, in Munich, so Silke and four other members of our team went there, and they ran a one day session … a one day and a half session … with 80 people, and then two days later, I called him and said, “Okay, so, how did it go?” He said, “Yeah, you know, I have 30 people out of the 70 who responded to my email, and they said that it was great, and it was fantastic, and, but then I don’t know what the other 40 …”

I said, “What the hell are you talking about? You’re in technology. So, how many people do you need to buy your stuff the first day, in order for you to feel that you are improving?” He says, “No, 2%. You have 40%. So, you need to go for the early adopters. Forget about having everyone in.” Because we always focus on the people who are not in, instead of focusing on the people who want to make the change happen. So, who said that everyone should be in? A change process takes the same process that any sales process.

Culture Change: Make it Simpler. Make it Happen.

Culture Change: Make it Simpler. Make it Happen.

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.

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?

The next article in this series All Aboard? The culture train doesn’t need to be full to leave the station.

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