You want to create change, your team wants to evolve, everyone talks about it. Flexibility, agility, growth, innovation, customer centricity… the concept in your mind is clear. You design a plan and you try it, but things don’t go as you would like! What happened? Why has cultural change failed once again?
Desire and purpose are the first step, but without action, there is no transformation. A Mindset shift is critical to be successful in this transformation. Many leaders already know this. However, expectations are high and despite the enthusiasm, materialising change isn’t a short-term, easy project. When we talk about transformation, pace, depth and consistency are critical. We have to learn to deal with anxiety and overcome the most common pitfalls. Cultural change falls short most of the times in people’s words, and in this post, I am going to share the reasons why and three pillars to work on in order to make it better next time.
“Without action, there is no transformation”.Fran Cherny
Why do cultural changes fail?
After more than fifteen years’ experience consulting, facilitating and intervening in cultural transformation processes, I’ve identified three common pitfalls that trap most managers during the process of change.
My aim in this article is to share and discuss how these pitfalls emerge and suggest three concrete solutions that could help to avoid them.
1| Pitfalls of cultural change: Trending topics to “trending habits”
The first pitfall is following trending topics instead of creating “trending habits”.
Cultural change is a current trend, and I really love this! But trends can also become a problem. For example, whenever I teach the victim-player mindsets that many large organisations are trying to implement, everyone recognises the need to become more of a player; to focus more on solutions and on what we can control rather than on limiting factors. When I explain how to operate in a growth mindset and focus on our never-ending capacity to do better, management teams are usually instantly willing to embrace it. The benefits are evident to all. However, if we only become enamoured with the concept, we can easily fall into the trap of missing the factor that is key to making these new mindsets work in practice.
When mindsets are taught without creating a context in which they can blossom, as well as an activity system that translates them into habits, they will easily dilute. Instead of loving the process, you will only love the concept but still believe that you might be adopting the mindset already just by talking about it. Our brain may create a complacent story which then makes it harder to deconstruct the false mentality.
I can teach any new mindset and the behaviours that express it perfectly in a two-hour slot (even in a 10-minute slot!), from a conceptual perspective, and with some time for practice. However, the learning process is far from complete if we don’t properly understand how to incorporate these concepts into our daily routines, and therefore don’t properly practise it either.
How do we become the person who “naturally” (meaning more automatically) brings this mindset alive? To make this happen, it is key to focus on the one thing that happens in organisations all the time: conversations through a variety of different channels. What do we do every day? We think, discuss, negotiate, commit, and deliver something. We are in meetings, writing emails, or exchanging instant messages all day, and when we’re not talking to someone, we’re talking to ourselves (as you are doing right now, while reading these words). The quality of these thoughts and conversations and the way in which they happen are an asset or a liability to how corporate culture is built and shaped.
Cultural change programmes have more chance of success when we include concrete habits that introduce the new mindsets into conversations and meetings as key devices. Without them, cultural change will fail. An example of this in most organisations is how changing the way we set the agenda of a meeting can be a simple, but powerful, tool to improve coordination and make commitments and accountability much clearer and more transparent. Also, discussing together at the end of a meeting what we could have done better during the meeting can be, for example, an effective way of applying the learner mindset. Therefore, this avoids the unhealthy habit of judging the quality of the meeting afterwards in the hallway, a common vice that boycotts the group’s learning process and feeds the ‘Inner Knower’ in ourselves.
In short, in order to make change happen, we need to turn a mindset into a habit, and a habit into a mindset. Creating this virtuous cycle is key to helping new mindsets take root and making cultural transformation a powerful lubricant for business growth and innovation.
“We need to turn a mindset into a habit, and a habit into a mindset”.Fran Cherny
2| Pitfalls of cultural change: being one step ahead in order to lead change
The second pitfall is not the design of change programmes, but the behaviour of those who lead them.
The problem is as follows: A manager of an organisation implements a programme to equip a team with a new mindset, to create a change and improve things. The programme is led by people with good intentions, but who still might be operating with the old mindset.
Let me give you another example: A leader wants to create a pilot test to train a management group to be more innovative and agile. The process will encounter a number of setbacks, which is to be expected with most new programmes. While this is not a problem per se, what I have observed many times is that the leader quickly focuses on who created the setback, who is to blame, and even considers cancelling the programme if people don’t fully ‘like it’ or get on board. This is exactly the opposite of what being innovative and agile means.
By adopting these defensive attitudes, managers and leaders miss a great opportunity to start changing the culture “on the job” by assuming responsibility and taking corrective action while running the pilot test. Or even better, by acknowledging that they might not know how to solve some of the issues and therefore share the problem with the group to search for solutions in a process of collective learning and cooperation. The way we run a pilot test is also by talking about the culture we have versus the one we want.
In short, leading change from the perspective of the old mindset and behaviours can never really work. In any change programme, the process itself must be the ‘spearhead’ to break into the new mindset. In order to lead a cultural change, we, as the leaders of the process, need to be a few steps ahead in embodying the new values and sending the right signals and symbols that will inspire everyone else to follow. Cultural changes can fail but with a new mindset, you can avoid this.
“Leading change from the perspective of the old mindset and behaviours can never really work”.Fran Cherny
Pitfalls of cultural change: fast and furious!
The third pitfall is based on an interesting paradox: In order to move fast, we need to start slow.
“Dress me slowly, I´m in a hurry”.Napoleon
Some of the phrases I hear the most from leaders in organisations that want to embark on cultural change programmes start something like: “We need to change corporate culture; it is critical for the business”, “It is one of our top 3 priorities”, or “Changing culture is key to our future success”. Right after saying this, they complement it with one or all of the following: “We have a very limited budget and have just one shot to make it happen”, “We need this urgently, it needs to be done in the next 6 months!” and “teach us how to do it ourselves in the next few months”.
I suspect that many people reading this might not only have heard something like this before, but might also have said something similar themselves. Don’t you?
So, how does this urgency translate into the implementation of a process of change? I will illustrate the problem with an example. Recently, I was hired to implement a pilot test to help a team adopt a more innovative and agile way of working, using the learner mindset which was critical to becoming more customer-centric. Yet, at the end of the process, which they thought was going to be enough to change some very deep, engrained behaviours, the leadership team wanted to assess the success of the programme by measuring specific business outcomes, even when we were just running a pilot test to learn. They were exclusively focused on whether a certain result on sales was actually achieved rather than on the experience of adopting a learner mindset, which involves the team trying new things and approaching problems in a different way. They said they wanted to create skills that will enable this new way of working to flourish and multiply, but they were actually looking for a new magic formula.
Both learner and growth mindsets are about creating experiences that motivate teams to continue learning in an ever-evolving process. Yet, leaders seem to be more interested in cutting the programme short and grasping a tangible fixed result as soon as they can. This not only goes against the essence of the mindsets they are trying to teach, but also erodes the capacity to create the change they wanted so much in the first place.
The result of such behaviours is usually a series of never-ending pilot tests, continuous change of consulting firms in search of a ‘magic formula’, and many other attempts that fail to produce real change in corporate culture. Managers find themselves running in circles and ultimately the organisation spends much more money, time, and energy than what is actually required to make a change programme successful.
“Cultural changes fail if you don’t go for deep transformation at the right pace”.Fran Cherny
How to avoid cultural change pitfalls
It is time for applying the player, learner, and growth mindsets to this article.
As I shared at the beginning, the first step to begin the journey of cultural change is the shift in our way of looking at things, a change in our own mindsets. But even so, cultural changes fail for the reasons listed above. Now is the time to know how to avoid these pitfalls.
I ask you, reading this, not to challenge my words by finding what is not fully true for you (I know your mind might be trying to pull you in that direction!), but to try to find situations in which these pitfalls might have happened to you, your team, or your organization, and how you can think of a different way to respond to the challenge. Is there any new thought or idea worth trying? Let me give you some advice: stop thinking of others, and just start with yourself!
Now that we have identified some of the most common issues most companies encounter, the question that arises is: Is there a way to get away from these pitfalls? My answer is yes, and I summarise my three key and simple recommendations below.
Acknowledge your biases and limitations
This is perhaps the most important and fundamental of all recommendations. As I already explained above, one of the main pitfalls that prevents real change from happening is that programmes that train teams to adopt new mindsets are led by people who still operate through an old mindset. To avoid this problem, it is essential for leaders to recognise that in many cases, they might not be fully ready to lead the process of change.
Look for support!
Whenever you are getting into territory you haven’t navigated before, it is always a good idea to have someone around to guide, support, or advise you (or all 3 together). Someone who has no other agenda than making things happen with you. Yes, your ego might get in the way, but don’t let it win, as you will be missing an opportunity to learn, evolve and do the best for the organisation you are trying to add value to.
Train a pioneering team
Before starting the implementation of a company-wide programme, it is very important to first train a small team within the company that fully adopts the new mindsets and that is respected by others. Once this team is attuned, the programme can then be extended to others, maintaining a commitment to follow the pioneers. In short, before sharing and deploying a big and ambitious change programme, make sure that at least a small group is one step ahead to lead the way.
Cultural changes fail for many different reasons: not practising enough, leadership behaviours, and a sense of urgency that creates anxiety. When we do it this way, it becomes a very complex project, but we can avoid the pitfalls of cultural change by applying the player, learner, and growth mindsets and the three practical recommendations that I have shared with you. When we do this, what was complex and heavy, becomes a never-ending journey with a deep sense of purpose, that will create learning, enthusiasm and change faster than you expect.
In my next article, I will elaborate further on these three recommendations, and especially on the latter point, which I consider the most fundamental step to becoming truly successful change leaders.