Culture Alignment

Strategy is what is visible, on the surface. Culture is unseen. But in a battle between culture and strategy, culture always wins.

Redefining the strategy is much easier than reshaping the culture.

It can take years, and is a formidable challenge that should be owned and led by the CEO and the leadership group. Because culture is the result of what leaders do; how they behave.

What is culture and why do people want to change it?

Culture is a set of assumptions that a group shares. They are taken for granted; unquestioned. As new members join the group they learn the assumptions. They are usually formed around whatever is successful. Products that are successful. Processes. Technology. The organization becomes inseparable from the cause of that success. Microsoft and Windows. 3M and innovation. Southwest and low-cost/fun service. Enron and….

When leaders talk of the need for organizational change, it usually means they want to change the culture. But you don’t change culture. You change leaders, or change the behavior of leaders; which changes the culture.

The visible manifestation of the culture is behavior. In particular, the behavior of leaders. There is some set of accepted behaviors that worked in the past but now gets in the way of success. Old habits die hard.

How do leaders go about changing a culture?

(Assuming the strategic story is unambiguous and there is a clear picture of the end-state)

You remove the leaders stuck in the old world. You also promote or hire new leaders who believe in the new world.

You work hard on defining and rewarding the new behaviors.

You work hard on helping everyone understand and make it through the changes.

3 signs of a culture in trouble

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It is really hard to implement any strategic change of course.

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People, especially leaders, protect their position at all costs.

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Decision-making is unusually slow.

What to do

Diagnose to create shared language and plans

In medical practice there is a common adage; “Intervention without diagnosis is malpractice.” This is as true for social systems like organizations as it is for biological systems like the human body.

Transformational leaders understand that significant change requires diagnosing the organization’s (1) readiness for transformation, and (2) existing health.

They also know that they must engage leaders in the act of diagnosis before treatment. This builds consensus and commitment to the hard work that must be done.

Assemble the right leaders

Those that believe in the new world. About a third will. Another third will resist. Remove them. The final third? They will be on the fence. Encourage the third that ‘get it’ to engage this group; to bring them on the journey.

Dialogue enables change

As CEO, deploy the ’Rule of Seven.’ You need to communicate at least seven times before your message is heard. During transformations, staff are only interested in three things ‘me, me and me.’ Will I have a job? Will it be the same job? Who will be my boss?

What will change and what will not must be unambiguous. Communication is at the core of culture change. Not ‘command and control’ communication. Rather, Conversational Leadership. The most effective way to communicate and build trust. It is a style that encourages discussion. It is informal and personal. You can’t control the message in today’s world. But you can listen authentically, ask questions, draw people out; the vitality of dialogue.