There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. ~ Mark Twain
There is a very popular TV game show in American culture called Family Feud which features two competing families must name the most popular responses to a survey question posed to 100 people in order to win cash and prizes. Not only are the survey questions funny and entertaining, but so are is the composition of some of the families as contestants. And of course the long running host, Richard Dawkins, adds to the merriment and laughter. TV Guide named Family Feud one of the 60 most popular television shows of all time. The most iconic phrase of the show, which has been used by many of us in our lives, is . . . “Survey Says . . “
Survey Says . . .
No matter which “expert” group you read or speak with; academics, Big 4 Consulting, McKinsey, HR professionals and corporate culture gurus, the same statistic is heard. “Most culture change programs fail”. In actuality, they are right. Most culture change programs, whether designed and led by consultants and other outsiders, or organised internally, fail to deliver on what is really desired, a culture (how things get done) that better matches and supports the delivery of the business strategy and at the same time increases employee engagement and overall accountability for performance.
That in itself is a tall order, but the moniker, “culture change” really is a proxy for a better way of ensuring the company wins in the marketplace. After all, the goal is not just to have employees feel better about themselves, each other or management (that may be a valuable by-product), the real objective is better competitive performance.
And if you look at it that way, through the lens of those with P&L responsibility, it’s no wonder most fail to deliver, they aren’t really designed around the realities of the business. And interestingly enough, many if not most performance improvement activities have a difficult time delivering sustainable results because the current culture can be a significant barrier to change.
So, most everyone agrees that “most culture change programs fail”. But what they don’t really understand is WHY?
WHY and HOW?
When I was a young boy I got into a heap of trouble for taking apart the toaster. The automatic pop-up feature was broken and it was “Johnny to the rescue”. I was smart enough to unplug it, and I knew the outcome I wanted, but the whole thing was a disaster, and I can still recall the angry lecture from my Dad. The fact was, I knew the end result, but didn’t understand the mechanics of how a toaster worked!
And I believe the same is true of those who attempt to “change culture”!
You can change culture, or better yet reshape it to better fit your business and people requirements, if you know the principles that build, shape and sustain corporate culture.
While there are many things that help a company culture develop and become “real”, if you want to reshape your culture there are three critical elements of “how culture works” that need to be thoroughly researched and understood.
These three elements, or what I call Major Levers for Culture Change, are Leadership Alignment, Informal Social Network, and Internal Work Policies/Processes.
Too often culture change programs focus on one of these levers, usually it’s around leadership alignment. Since “organisations are shadows of their leaders”, that is indeed am important change lever, but it is not sufficient to bring about real sustainable change.
And most “culture change experts completely miss the fact that informal social networks, peer pressure to conform, and the human need for belonging to a group or “tribe” are powerful drivers of corporate culture. The reality is, there is no such thing as a single corporate culture. Instead an organisation is composed of many different subcultures which may or may not be aligned with the overall business strategy and company values.
And the sad fact is, most senior executives have no clue where the subcultures are and whether or not they are an asset or a liability.
The third lever, internal work proceses and policies is usually where most culture change programs fall short. It’s hard work looking at policies and processes and determining whether or not they promote the behaviours we need, or drive the wrong kind of behaviour. And few senior executives have the courage to change such ingrained policies. For example, the culture of banking would be entirely different if the bonus and compensation systems were revised and hiring profiles were changed. But in most companies, changing policies, even ones driving the wrong behaviours, is taboo!
For a sustainable culture shift, all three levers must be thoroughly understood, researched, and focused on when designing a culture change program.
I am reminded of my favourite Meatloaf song, “Two out of three ain’t bad!” A great song, but not a winning formula for culture change. All three change levers must work together, synergistically, to bring about a sustainable culture shift.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!