I was recently invited to provide a ‘culture lens’ on a draft Tender document for a 2 year programme of culture change in an organisation of c50,000 employees.  It’s the kind of thing I love and have done many times before, but my heart sank when I read the brief.  From experience I know only too well how change on such a scale is a long-term effort, yet this organisation wanted to achieve it via nothing more than a leadership development programme.

It’s often said that change begins with a ‘burning platform’, and there is indeed nothing quite like a crisis to provoke change.  This is especially the case when we talk about culture change, as the very act suggests there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the organisation behaves.

As with so many change projects however, the question I often ask myself is how many actually work?  We know that the vast majority of change projects fail to deliver a decent ROI, but it feels that organisations seldom seem to learn from each attempt to change the modus operandi.

In physics, you achieve change by the very act of observing something, and it feels a bit like this in many organisations.  That initial brief I spoke about, for instance, it was akin to a quick sheep dip of development that undoubtedly would have done something, but would it have achieved lasting and sustained change?  I doubt it.

Lasting change

So what can you do to improve your chances?  A nice model I use to explain things is French and Bell’s Organisation Iceberg, as it describes a number of ‘formal’ aspects of the organisation that all have a huge impact on the culture that emerges.  I mean things such as performance management, pay and reward, processes, policies, recruitment approaches, risk and governance,  procurement policies and so on.

A leadership development programme might touch on these element but influences more of the ‘informal’ organisation, but to truly change the environment, and therefore the culture, will require an active and deliberate effort from the whole organisation.  You can then begin to commit to a co-ordinated programme to change and align the other culture influencers so that they support and reinforce the new behaviours you want to see.

By approaching your change project in this way, leaders throughout the organisation are tasked with driving through the change, and therefore ownership and engagement tends to be stronger.  It also allows you to utilise ideation and collaboration platforms, such as Wazoku, as a vehicle for capturing the problems and barriers, before then spinning out mini task forces to work through the challenges and develop new policies, practices and ways of working which will reinforce the desired culture.

Deliberate change

This shifts the focus away from hoping that your culture will change whilst focusing on something else towards a clear and distinct focus on culture change itself.  It requires a deliberate alignment between both the behaviours you wish to see, and the environment within which those behaviours occur.

Suffice to say, such change is not purely about macro organisational change.  It can also be about changing the ways of working in one function, division or department.  For example, if you want to change the way your customer service teams interact with customers on the phone so that they build deeper relationships with the customer, this will involve changing the micro culture within this department.  Of course, this will be supported by environmental factors such as their objectives, remuneration and recognition, but it will be underpinned by your staff learning new skills.

Those employees then need to be supported as much as possible along the way.  This goes beyond merely training them, and involves the 4Es MethodologyTM we use at The Culture Consultancy:

The 4Es Methodology

Educating: Providing people with the understanding and rationale behind actions.

Engaging: Ensuring individuals are motivated and support the change in a positive way.

Empowering: Encouraging employees to take ownership and responsibility, having provided them with the skills and knowledge

Enabling: Creating the environment and structures to ensure people take action and can deliver.

This framework provides the kind of systemic approach required to really embed new behaviours and deliver change. It’s important to educate and engage people in the ‘why are we doing this’ from both an intellectual AND emotional level, the emotional being so critical.

So, by all means continue to use leadership development as the hook by which you hang your culture change initiatives, but please don’t fall into the trap of believing that alone will do the job.