Posts Tagged “business”

Corporate Culture Change: Lessons from Geology

The movie trailer for the newly-released film, The Company Men, has the following tag line: “In America, we give our lives to our jobs…” It succinctly sums up a key aspect of the prevailing American culture—our attitude towards work, and its centrality in shaping our choices.

Organizations, too, have cultures that make them more or less desirable places to spend our time. But what is “organizational culture”? Simply defined, it is “the way we do things around here.” While company values, policies, and goals are widely communicated, its culture is rarely captured in any formal way but is widely understood among those in it. As one wag said, “I don’t know what fish think about, but it sure isn’t water.” It’s not part of the environment. It is the environment.

Organization culture breathes in a world of stated and implied expectations and norms. For example: we respond to e-mail early, late, and over the weekend, we take conference calls in the evening during family time, or we change vacation plans according to unforeseen business needs. It can mean wearing a suit or never wearing one. The culture may support “cube farms” or open work spaces, support or forbid skateboards and dogs at work, reward team effort or rogue individualism. Culture can fuel or blunt innovation. As management guru Peter Drucker has concluded about its power: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

One thing I know for sure (to borrow the name of Oprah’s monthly column), organizational culture is really difficult to change. Nor does it happen quickly. The most helpful thing I was ever told on the subject is this: expect culture change to happen “like water on rock.” Drip, drip. Slow erosion of old forms—particularly in the case of long-established companies or institutions. Yet it is so often those corporate giants that decide their culture needs to change, and by the way, let’s hit that objective by the end of the year. Younger companies are less encumbered by the weight of their own history and tendencies. Take the young airline JetBlue, for example, which is intentionally building a value-based culture, instead of having to rebuild one that has grown warped.

So this got me to thinking about geology and water erosion. Here are a few facts about the physics of “water on rock” that could prove to hold lessons for organizations, large and small, seeking to change their culture.

Lesson #1: Water always flows from high terrain downward, towards lower terrain. This is why rivers carve valleys.

In organizations, the high terrain is the C-suite (AKA Chief Executive Whoevers). Are the leaders in the organization just declaring the need for culture change or designing and investing in systemic changes? Yes, Virginia, there is a culture and “it” comprises systems and sanctions, processes and people, rules and rewards. Think of it like sedimentary rock—fused layers, all of which must be worn away to erode, reshape, and free it to become something else. These layers have to shift and align to a new way of thinking and doing to realize and reinforce true culture change.

Are leaders participating in culture change (what do I need to do differently?) or delegating it as a strategic intention and waiting for results as observers from the high terrain? Here’s an example: I recently heard that an executive in a recently merged Fortune 100 company wondered with exasperation why the culture change scores weren’t better yet (within the first year), while at the same time not knowing who was responsible for training its supervisors. A counter example? Ann Rhoades, architect of Jet Blue’s corporate culture, has successfully employed a critical equation: Leadership drives values, values drive behavior, behaviors define culture, and culture determines performance.

Leaders who seek culture change need to get their suits wet, feel the current, and start swimming in the realities (JetBlue’s CEO David Barger is also a crew member, helping with food service and cleaning the aircraft when he flies). They must be able to speak from the heart about why it needs to change because they have listened to not only their business analysts but their frontline employees. And then commit to the time and resources it will take.

Lesson #2: Raindrops (especially in dry environments) create splash erosion that moves tiny particles of soil.

So if you are frustrated waiting for the headwaters to make their way downstream, start by making a splash. Whether you are an employee, team leader, or manager, take a risk. Risk = splash.
Ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I defy (with even the smallest gesture) the way we do things around here?” Then test your hypothesis and notice what happens. Were you applauded openly or underground, discouraged, or met with passive-aggressive humor? In any case, you will have discovered something critical about risk tolerance in your culture. Your team may be less rigid than the overall culture. And who knows, those watching may just start to do their own rain dance.

Lesson #3: The faster water moves in streams the larger objects it can pick up and transport. This is known as critical erosion velocity.


So how can an organization realistically increase the velocity of culture change? After all, neither drip nor splash are the mechanisms of speed.

A few starter ideas:

Share the splash impact
—real-life stories of culture change occurring in teams or small units widely. Virally. Give the soil particles hope of movement. Lots of rivulets converge as streams.

Create a survival narrative
. The need for culture change usually means there is big trouble. In other words, unless we can create a raging river torrent to reach the arid plan, people and animals could starve.

Make sure people get in the boat before you head downstream. There is usually plenty of talk about buy-in and catchphrases created to generate excitement (“All Fired Up!”—oh please). While processes and systems must be revamped to drive culture change, the people who have to adapt and use them better be onboard. Research from the Forum Corporation’s identifies three key people factors that drive speed: Clarity, unity, and agility.

Of course, companies want to speed up culture change, which is usually linked to gaining competitive advantage. But be careful out there, most of those who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel died. If you’re going to go fast and furious, be ready for the ride, and the results. Or cultivate some patience.

Me? I’m going outside to check for signs of rain.

Posted on: February 3rd, 2011 2 Comments

Get Real: Less is Less

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.

-excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem, “After Apple-Picking”

I don’t know if this first blog entry is best described as a personal admission, professional rant, or a cry for workplace sanity. Maybe this is the winter of my discontent. Or my Jerry Maguire moment—you know, that dawning crisis of conscience written and distributed in the form of a “memo” asserting that something about the way we are working is seriously out of whack. In the movie, Jerry left the office after that memo’s clarion call (and his quick, decisive dismissal by the company) with a single goldfish and single follower.

What the hell. I haven’t had a goldfish since I won one in the 5th grade Catholic Halloween carnival. And I just quit my job in the midst of the worst recession in my lifetime, so I can’t be fired anyway.

So I am calling for a radical shift—a return to a way or working that actually acknowledges that the “workforce” comprises real human beings who are finite in their time and energy, have friends and family who miss their attention, and who are desperately in need of a long winter’s nap with their cell phones set to ‘silent.’

As many corporations and flailing small businesses alike declare “work/life balance” as a core value, they simultaneously commit to business performance targets and “stretch” productivity metrics that are fundamentally incompatible with the former. And when last quarter’s profit margin competes with employee engagement scores for the greatest gains, you can be sure the one with dollar signs in front will win.

Admittedly, I am currently relying mostly on my qualitative observations as a facilitator and organization development consultant. But my instincts are bearing out in the research that shows a negative correlation between profitability, customer satisfaction and overall job satisfaction among employees. The Gallup organization has found that “actively disengaged employees erode an organization’s bottom line while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process.” Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates this cost to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone. Now check out this math from Towers Perrin findings: 72 percent of companies have reduced their workforces in response to the recession, while the number of “actively disengaged” workers has risen to as much as 24 percent in companies where layoffs have occurred.

At a time when most of the drones in the corporate hive just want to understand the basics of what-why-how-and when, too often the executive buzz—that deafening, deadening hum of business-speak—continues to numb their neurons to any sense of hope or clarity. Questions posed from the hive often seem reasonable enough: “Why is it that we (read mega-company) just had record 3d quarter earnings, yet we’re still laying off people?”. Yet the answers seem less than transparent (read spin).

Here is a tiny sample of what I am hearing:

Employee (Plain English) translated into CEO (Corporate Executive Obfuscation)

“I’m completely exhausted and past my limits.” CEO translation: “We are hearing about ‘capacity management’ issues.”

“I hear there is another round of layoffs coming.” CEO translation: “We will continue to evolve our structure in the coming months.”

“There is no way we can get all this done with fewer people.” CEO translation:“Our resourcing plan is aspirational at this point.”

“I’m screwed.” CEO translation: “We encourage you to carry our vacation forward into next year in response to our new stretch targets.”

It seems to that colony collapse disorder is occurring not only in bee communities but in corporate ones as well.

In the movie of Anna Quindlen’s poignant novel, One True Thing, a cancer-stricken mother confides to her daughter as they stroll their neighborhood streets decorated for the holidays, “I believe more is more.” Counter to that often-invoked call for simplicity, “Less is more,” she contentedly admits that when it comes to Christmastime, more gold, more tinsel, more glitter is better.

Let’s try a third variation. Call me the anti-elf, but when it comes to current workplace norms, I hereby proclaim “Less is less!” Trying to achieve goals that are beyond stretch (they are break), more complex , and have shorter timeframes (next week) with fewer resources (slashed budgets and lower headcount, which means people) is a low-probability endeavor. “Load upon load of apples…. One can see what will trouble/This sleep of mine.” Yet too few executives are poets with troubled sleep.

Awaken! There are plenty of goals that should be abandoned, jettisoned, or time capsuled because they are unrealistic within the current economy and prevailing corporate cultures. Send some to the cider-apple heap. Then decide what will truly set your company apart (“customer focus”? I don’t think so) and distill your priorities down to the essence of excellence to better inspire your people, capture your customers, and save us all from the unrelentingly frenzied pace and tsunami of techno-communication in which we are drowning.

So, leaders, heal thyself and LEAD (acronyms are de rigeur to get attention):

Limit priorities to the few that matter most—ABANDON others—and see what happens to focus and results
Empathize with employees’ workload and confusion (wild idea: sit in their chairs, attend their endless teleconferences, and read their bursting Inboxes for a day)—and see what happens to trust, teamwork, and retention
Allow employees time for reflection as part of their job—and see what happens to critical thinking and innovation
Declare “less is less” as a company commitment to realistic goals—and see what happens to motivation, engagement, and productivity, and perceived leadership credibility

I hereby join Jon Stewart in a call to restore sanity, not only to politics, but to the corporate workplace, where real humans spend most of their days and too many nights.

Is there a goldfish in need of a home out there anywhere? Anyone willing to follow me? I’d like to hear from you—whether it is a rant, recommendation, or story of what’s really working or decidedly not working out there.

As a business leader, what are you doing to reclaim your workplace for real human beings? As an employee, what are you doing that is bringing out your best at work, without sacrificing your health or values?

Posted on: January 12th, 2011 6 Comments