I don’t know about you, but every once in a while I get a flashback from High School. Sometimes it’s about my lackluster sports career, sometimes about the marching band I played in, and occasionally about one of my classes. The other day, for no apparent reason, my high school physics class popped into my head (guess I was bored) and I began to think about the concepts we learned, and specifically the concept of Friction.
I must confess I didn’t recall all the formulas relating to friction, but I did remember the concept that to move one body resting on top of another, an amount of force greater than the coefficient of friction needs to be applied. It is interesting to note that the coefficient of friction cannot be obtained through calculation, but only through empirical measurement.
As common sense would dictate, a steel block on ice has a relatively low coefficient of friction compared to a steel block on a piece of sandpaper. In other words it takes less energy to move the steel block across the ice than across the sandpaper. (that’s about the limit of my physics!).
In researching the topic of friction on the Internet, I came across this graph of the energy required to move one object across the surface of another.
So? What’s the Point?
Looking at this graph and reconnecting with the concept of friction suddenly gave me an insight into Culture Change!
First of all, culture change takes a lot of energy, more than most CEOs and senior teams realize, and certainly more effort than most consultants inagine. In fact, it takes a lot of energy on the part of the senior team, middle managers and the “informal leaders” at all levels to break the force of old cultural habits ( = static friction) and begin to move the company towards a new set of work habits and behaviour patterns. Just putting together a new set of Corporate Values and conducting a road show may sound like a lot of effort, but not much changes.
To break the grip of the old culture (I call it “cultural static friction”) requires focused effort to be applied all at once in many different areas. The senior team needs to change the way they interact with each other and with employees. Old company policies and work processes need to be revised to promote new behaviours. Hiring, promotion and performance reviews need to be rethought and changed. Informal leaders (those individuals highly respected by employees) need to be recruited to help instill new behaviours and attitudes. Those managers and supervisors who resist the new culture need to be coached in or out! The same goes for members of the senior team.
The good news, however, is that once leaders, managers and employees break free from their old unconscious cultural habits and small shifts in the culture (ways of working) begin to take place, it takes less energy to continue the process of reshaping a new culture (cultural kinetic energy). In this phase of the reshaping or culture change process, consistency is the key. Stop or back off on the new leadership behaviours, revert to old policies, avoid taking action on bad behaviour, and the strong force of static friction begins to take hold.
One thing I’ve noticed that is very different about the process of culture change from the model of overcoming friction, is that if you fail to keep up the effort and the old habits tend to re-emerge, it becomes harder to break free again. In other words, the force of cultural static friction becomes greater, since people are now more cynical and skeptical of management’s real commitment to change!
John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
PS: John also writes thriller novels