The necessity to align day-to-day work to the vision
The narrow view of the culture leads companies to run traditional culture transformation programs that mainly focus on the visionary and symbolic elements and ignore the importance of translating words into day-to-day operations, which never happens without the hard and practical elements of culture.
The misunderstood element of culture is that meaningless work is in fact a product of the prevailing culture.
Whereas the vision is a precondition for setting change in motion, the hard elements align day-to-day work to it and answer “what’s in it for me”. They equip employees with new skills, improve their daily grind by removing demotivating obstacles that waste talent, time and effort and introduce new modern methods and tools that enable teams to work better, faster and stronger.
According to research by MIT Sloan School of Management, meaningfulness at work is something that employees find for themselves. Finding meaning is an individual process, and the organisation’s purpose can deepen the meaning if an employee shares the purpose. The research results do not question the importance of a purpose, yet they communicate that a lofty purpose should not overshadow other, more tangible elements that impact work. Things that are more achievable to every manager.
In contrast, meaningless work is something that organisations actively cause. The usual suspects for it are the feeling of the organisation not being aligned with the whole spectrum of market developments, lack of autonomy and support, valueless bureaucracy, ineffective decision-making and unnecessary manual work with dated tools among others. The misunderstood element of culture is that meaningless work is in fact a product of the prevailing culture. After all, everything what we do at work is affected by culture. Day in, day out.
It is easy, even tempting, to overestimate the importance of one defining, visionary moment and underestimate the value of making small meaningful improvements that impact day-to-day employee experience positively. A relentless focus on the day-to-day is the most tangible expression of the culture change being real. It is a credibility factor.
Conclusion: To change the conduct, one needs to change the context. A healthy culture requires an active nurturing of soft and hard elements of culture. Remember that optics and big size matter very little; positive small day-to-day experiences do.
Organisational culture as the first resource
Due to its reputation as a tricky topic, culture is too often used on an organisational level as a last resort. It is the final scapegoat that needs a makeover when all other means have been exhausted with lacklustre results. When the top management finally wakes to the need to work on it, often due to the BoD putting pressure on them, they face a monumental task.
The risk of letting the culture drift is a company having a strong unhealthy culture. Cultural strengths from the past have slowly become irrelevant yet left untouched. No new cultural traits have been embedded into management systems and operations. Counterproductive behaviours have become the norm. The stronger the unhealthy culture, the harder it is to change. A permanent change rarely happens without a new CEO and the composition of top management changing.
Conclusion: The longer the culture is left to drift, the greater the need for more radical episodic culture transformations and the smaller the odds of success. Leaders and employees should systematically nurture culture, seeing its management as a natural part of day-to-day operations.
The power of one supported by team effort
Even though culture is a collective force, evolving it is an individual responsibility. Leaders often see it as “a thing” instead of something they can personally change, which is not correct, as culture evolves continuously whether managed or not.
Together, the cross-functional and cross-vertical coalition form a team of torchbearers for the change-resistant majority.
Active culture management takes ”only” a leader with a cultural vision and understanding, using voice, acting as a role model, ignoring the formal company structures and building horizontal and vertical coalitions with other change-makers. Together, the cross-functional and cross-vertical coalition form a team of torchbearers for the change-resistant majority.
Active culture management, or culture drifting, happens on four levels:
While it is up to a team leader to build an effective team, building a high-performing company with shared goals and collaborative teams and a coveted workplace requires the commitment, championing, and efforts of the CEO and the top team.
Conclusion: Top-level, mid-level or lower-level leaders create culture daily, intentionally or unintentionally. The number and commitment of the people who assume individual responsibility and their ability to build interdependencies that multiply individual efforts will determine whether the culture will become a source of sustained competitive advantage.
The ultimate test of leadership
Being vague, pushing change from the top down and being inconsistent and weak are obvious no-go’s, yet not uncommon reasons for failure.
Effective culture leaders articulate what values are important to reach shared goals and desired business outcomes, what behaviours are expected, what counterproductive behaviours must end and how the new behaviours are supported. They ensure that the desired behavioural changes are reflected in the performance management and the recognition and reward systems. They understand that their own behaviour sets the new standard. Gaps between words and actions and frequent relapses will not do, as deeds communicate louder than words.
Strong leaders celebrate success and do not fear using penalty cards for those who resist.
Change happens when employees own it. Visionary leaders must find a balance between playing a role in intentionally defining the behaviours they expect to see and creating space for employees to shape the culture. Empowering leaders encourage and expect their teams to interpret the new rules and make them contextually relevant. While the values are the same, each team must come with their own set of actions that can be linked back to vision. Finally, strong leaders celebrate success and do not fear using penalty cards for those who resist. The most drastic penalty is a leader or an employee being demoted.
Conclusion: Culture evolution requires clarity on the new rules, strong and empowering leadership, celebrations, and subtle punishments.
Change-makers believe in order to see. Most employees need to see first to believe. They resist change until they see evidence of the new way of exciting troops and delivering better results.
The most effective way to win over the resistors is to link the new behaviours to positive business outcomes, have clear KPIs and frequently report on progress. As culture evolution is never a linear process, learn from mistakes in retrospectives to improve your plan based on open conversations. In this regard, culture transformations do not differ from any other transformation projects.
Conclusion: Have a few powerful culture KPIs that impact the shared goals, key business metrics and the bottom line. Be authentic, and do not hide the challenges you face along the way.
The usual triggers
There are a variety of triggers for the culture becoming a strategic topic and it being used as a leadership tool. A trigger to active culture management can be either proactive or reactive.
The most common proactive, positive triggers
- I want to be an effective, human leader
- I want to introduce culture as a strategic enabler and culture management as an essential leadership skill
- I want to make culture part of our strategic planning process to ensure the strategy’s effective execution
- I want our organisation to become [customer-obsessed – market-driven – innovative – add a word here_________ ]
- I want to build effective teams
- I want to increase organizational effectiveness
- I want my company to be a great place to work to attract critical talent
- I want our employees to fulfil their potential
- I want to ensure that our culture does not limit our future strategic options
The most common reactive, negative triggers
- We face strategy execution challenges
- Our leadership team is ineffective and distant
- We have mini-kingdoms, silos and harmful competition
- We have toxic sub-cultures with counteractive behaviours, even in high-performing parts of business
- Our current cultural weaknesses are greater than the cultural strengths of the past
- We feel imprisoned by our culture, cannot see and seize new opportunities, and change fast enough
- Employees’ talent, time and effort is wasted
- Employees are disengaged and dissatisfied
- Leavers mention culture as one of the key reasons for quitting
- We do not attract the talent we need
You did not find your trigger? Let us know and we will add to the list.
Culture process: How to get started?
Being a leader is a challenging task. The expectations are high, the business environment is constantly changing and unpredictable, the resources to deliver are often too few, and it is hard to find enough time to safeguard the core business and renew it. Leaders and their teams are constantly exposed to external factors outside their control. Culture as an internal factor is one of the few things over which they have control, something they can make work for their own and the organisation’s benefit.
These five steps will help to get started. Note that the process is a skeleton. Its detailed content depends on the level on which the culture is actively managed.
Have shared goals
Discussing culture without business goals is useless, as culture is means to an end. Note that having someone’s goals and having shared goals are two different things. Deep consensus on the goals and priorities is the essence of a strong culture.
Create action plan and culture scenarios
Use your normal action planning process and add the culture component to it. Define what kind of culture would optimally contribute to performance.
- How should people think and behave as individuals
- How should you collaborate as a team and with other teams
- What skills and capabilities are a must-have
- What kind of system would guide, motivate and enable your team to focus its energy on what matters?
You can also work backwards from the culture to actions to test whether your culture is becoming your prison. Ask yourselves: If we had cultural traits X, Y and Z, would our action plan be different?
Identify culture gaps
Codify the current cultural modus operandi and analyse it against the optimal culture scenarios to identify critical gaps. How your team reacts emotionally to the action plan and culture scenarios reveals your culture blockers. Some blockers are personal, some revolve around the leadership, maybe even one person, and some will question the system’s adaptability. Some of the blockers are real. However, many are inside people’s heads. Do not get stuck with the blockers if you do not have the mandate or budget to remove elephants that block your way. You can always find better ways to navigate the system and focus on how to use it.
Create your culture plan with clear KPIs
If you spot critical culture gaps, the question is: When, if not now, is the right time to start addressing the weaknesses that hold your team and organisation back? Are you and your team ready to make short-term extra sacrifices to make you a stronger team and build a better work environment for tomorrow?
Create a realistic culture evolution plan for your culture journey. Fix one of a few things at a time, and start with quick wins before you go after bigger obstacles. Define culture KPIs and link them to the KPIs of your action plan. Track your progress to adjust the plan to make keep it relevant. Keep your ultimate goal in mind, which is to work in a way that helps you to reach shared goals effectively and build a case for the new way to work to become the way to work.
Never stop internal marketing
According to the Law of Diffusion,
- 15 % of the population is actively open to change,
- 34 % wait for the 15 % to show the way before they embrace new ideas
- 34 % resist until they see the results that show the new ideas work
- 16 % are never won over.