Principles of Organisational Culture

Principles of Organisational Culture

Principles of Organisational Culture

  1. Work with and within your current cultural situations-

    Deeply embedded cultures cannot be replaced with simple upgrades, or even with major overhaul efforts. Nor can your culture be swapped out for a new one as though it were an operating system or a CPU. To a degree, your current cultural situation just is what it is – and it contains components that provide natural advantages to companies as well as components that may act as brakes. We’ve never seen a culture that is all bad, or one that is all good. To work with your culture effectively, therefore, you must understand it, recognize which traits are preeminent and consistent, and discern under what types of conditions these traits are likely to be a help or a hindrance. Put another way, there’s both yang to cultural traits.

  2. Change behaviors, and mind-sets will follow-

    It is a commonly held view that behavioral change follows mental shifts, as surely as night follows day. This is why organizations often try to change mind-sets (and ultimately behavior) by communicating values and putting them in glossy brochures. This technique didn’t work well for Enron, where accounting fraud and scandal were part of everyday practice, even as the company’s espoused values of excellence, respect, integrity, and communication were carved into the marble floor of the atrium of its global headquarters in Houston. In reality, culture is much more a matter of doing than of saying. Trying to change a culture purely through top-down messaging, training and development programs, and identifiable cues seldom changes people’s beliefs or behaviors. In fact, neuroscience research suggests that people act their way into believing rather than thinking their way into acting. Changes to key behaviors – changes that are tangible, actionable, repeatable, observable, and measurable – are thus a good place to start. Some good examples of behavior change, which we’ve observed at a number of companies, relate to empowerment (reducing the number of approvals needed for decisions), collaboration (setting up easy ways to convene joint projects), and interpersonal relations (devising mutually respectful practices for raising contentious issues or grievances).

A telecommunications company was seeking to improve its customer service. Rather than trying to influence mind-sets by, for example, posting signs urging employees to be polite to disgruntled customers, or having employees undergo empathy training, the company focused on what psychologists call a “precursor behavior” – a seemingly innocuous behavior that reliably precedes the occurrence of problem behavior. Leaders had noticed that poor teaming led to poor customer service, so the company rolled out a plan to encourage better and more effective teaming within call centers. To accomplish this, they set up regular design sessions for improving practices. When employees felt they were part of a happy team, and sensed a greater level of support from colleagues, they began treating their customers better.

  1. Focus on a critical few behaviors-

    Conventional wisdom advocates a comprehensive approach – everybody should change everything that’s not perfect! But companies must be rigorously selective when it comes to picking behaviors. The key is to focus on what we call “the critical few,” a small number of important behaviors that would have great impact if put into practice by a significant number of people. Discern a few things people do throughout the company that positively affect business performance -for example, ways of starting meetings or talking with customers. Make sure those are aligned with the company’s overall strategy. Also check that people feel good about doing these things, so that you tap into emotional commitment. Then codify them: Translate those critical behaviors into simple, practical steps that people can take every day. Next, select groups of employees who are primed for these few behaviors, those who will respond strongly to the new behaviors and who are likely to implement and spread them.

  2. Deploy your authentic informal leaders-

    Authority, which is conferred by a formal position, should not be confused with leadership. Leadership is a natural attribute, exercised and displayed in formally without regard to title or position in the organizational chart. Because authentic informal leaders, who are found in every organization, are often not recognized as such, they are frequently overlooked and underused when it comes to driving culture. It is possible to identify such leaders through interviews, surveys, and tools such as organizational network analysis, which allow companies to construct maps of complex internal social relations by analyzing email statistics and meeting records. Once identified, these leaders can become powerful allies who can influence behavior through “showing by doing.” In fact, when companies map out their organizations, they can identify leaders who exhibit different core leadership strengths.

At one major oil company, an informal leader named Osama became known as the “turbo-collaborator.” His role gave him very little formal influence. But when he began working at the refinery, he walked the plant with the engineers, maintenance technicians, and operators, and took copious notes. As a result, he knew everyone and developed relationships across disciplines. Whenever somebody wanted to know how the place really worked, they would speak to Osama – who would either have the answer in his notebook or know precisely the right person to ask. When the company formed a buddy program between operations and maintenance aimed at using greater collaboration to improve plant reliability, it knew it needed Osama at the heart of it. He connected people, defined templates to encourage collaboration, and captured success stories. Identifying, engaging, and nurturing such informal leaders allows companies to harness their talents and further the company’s transformation efforts.

  1. Don’t let your formal leaders off the hook-

    Most organizations tend to shunt culture into the silo of human resources professionals. But leaders in all parts of the company are critical in safeguarding and championing desired behaviors, energizing personal feelings, and reinforcing cultural alignment. The signaling of emotional commitment sets the tone for others to follow. If staff members see a disconnect between the culture an organization promulgates and the one its formal leadership follows, they’ll disengage quickly from the advertised culture and simply mimic their seniors’ behavior. The people at the top have to demonstrate the change they want to see. Here, too, the critical few come into play. A handful of the right kind of leaders have to be on board to start the process.

  2. Link behaviors to business objectives-

    When people talk about feelings, motivations, and values – all of which are vital elements of strong -cultures the conversation can often veer into abstractions. It may then range far afield of what it takes to succeed in the market. Too many employees walk away from culture-focused town halls or values discussions wondering how the advice on how to be a better person actually translates into the work they do. To avoid this disconnect, offer tangible, well-defined examples of how cultural interventions lead to improved performance and financial outcomes. Select behaviors that are aimed specifically at improving business performance and can be measured over time. An oil company’s drive to reduce maintenance costs at an industrial installation highlights the importance of such an approach. The critical few behaviors included empowerment and good decision making. One of the company’s exemplars (employees who lead by example) decided it would be a smart move to make costs visible to workers. So he placed price tags on various pieces of machinery. These cues inspired behavioral changes related to decisions about whether to repair or replace equipment. Workers and managers began to recommend fixing expensive equipment rather than replacing it. The company celebrated and publicized cost savings identified by employees. The behaviors led to a change in focus and mind-set. When an employee noticed that fans were cooling the machinery during the winter, he felt empowered to call it out, and ask whether it was necessary to do so. It turned out that it wasn’t and the company saved US$750,000 annually in power costs as a result.

  3. Demonstrate impact quickly-

    We live in an age of notoriously short attention spans. That applies as much to organizational culture as it does to people’s media consumption habits. When people hear about new high-profile initiatives and efforts, and then don’t see any activity related to them for several months, they’ll disengage and grow cynical. That’s why it is extremely important to show case the impact of cultural efforts on business results as quickly as possible. One effective method of doing so is to stage performance pilots that is, high-profile demonstration projects. Pilots are relatively low-risk efforts that introduce specific behaviors that can then be evaluated and assessed. They often rely on a dashboard that defines desired impacts, the tactics used, and the specific metrics to be employed.

  4. Use cross-organizational methods to go viral-

    Ideas can spread virally across organizational departments and functions, as well as from the top down and from the bottom up. One powerful way to spread ideas is through social media: blogs, Facebook or LinkedIn posts, and tweets – not from senior management, but from some of the authentic informal leaders mentioned in Principle 4.

By now it is well established that social media can be more effective at spreading information, news, and music than traditional modes of distribution. The same holds with critical behaviors. People are often more receptive to changes in the way we do things around here” when those changes are recommended or shared by friends, colleagues, and other associates. This kind of credible social proof is more compelling than similar testimonials from someone whose job it is to sell something. Just as there is an art to making content go viral, there’s a craft to making behavior go viral.

For example, in a model that we have tested successfully in several situations, a company starts with a few carefully chosen groups of 12 to 15 informal leaders in three or four different parts of the business. After several weeks, an additional 10 to 15 groups of informal leaders are set up in every business unit. After about three months, the existing groups are encouraged to expand and bring in new people. After another three to six months have passed, the groups become more autonomous, allowed to control their own expansion. Meanwhile, the company facilitates connections among groups to share learning and insights. As behavior spreads, company leaders see increased performance as well as peer and leadership recognition.

  1. Align programmatic efforts with behaviors-

    We’ve emphasized the role that informal leaders can play in helping ideas go viral. But it’s also important to match the new cultural direction with existing ways of doing business. Informal mechanisms and cultural interventions must complement and integrate with the more common formal organization components, not work at cross-purposes. By providing the structure in which people work- through disciplines such as organization design, analytics, human resources, and lean process improvement – the formal organization provides a rational motivation for employee actions, while the informal organization enables the emotional commitment that characterizes peak performance.

The U.S. Marine Corps provides a classic example of integrating formal and informal leadership efforts. The “rule of three” dictates how the Marines design their organizations and projects and how they execute in a hierarchy. (Three squads form into one of three divisions, which form one of three battalions.) The formal leaders of those units are expected to know the intent of the officer two levels above them and to call out any order or situation they perceive to be incoherent or in conflict with that intent. But there are also informal leaders: Each of the four members of a frontline rifle team is prepared (and expected) to take the lead whenever the formal leader is disabled or loses the high-ground position. This means that the informal leaders also need to know the intent of that officer two levels above. Integrating informal norms with the formal structures helps enable the timely battlefield adjustments that have served the Marine Corps well for more than 200 years.

  1. Actively manage your cultural situation over time-

    Companies that have had great success working with culture we call them “culture superstars”- actively monitor, manage, care for, and update their cultural forces. Why? As we noted at the outset, when aligned with strategic and operating priorities, culture can provide hidden sources of energy and motivation that can accelerate changes faster than formal processes and programs. Even if you have a highly effective culture today, it may not be good enough for tomorrow.

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