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4 steps to cultural transformation

In late October I had the opportunity to chair the 2016 Customer Experience Management for Government conference in Sydney. As usual, I had a blast! The delegates were passionate and knowledgeable and their focus, contributions and insights were very much appreciated.

As part of the 3-day event, I facilitated a panel session focused on how to roll-out a customer experience culture inside large organisations. There had already been a few presentations that included this topic and I felt we were in a good position to synthesise and pull together the learnings from the panel and the room. So I set this as the challenge for the panel.

The panel took to the challenge and smashed it out of the park. Thank you to panel members Venetia Blackman, Liz Raw, Marie Jackson, James Kliemt and wonderful culture change presentation from Davina McCormick.

During the discussion, I took notes and guided the conversation to fill in gaps so that by the end of the 40 minute session we had a fairly comprehensive play-by-play on how to roll out significant cultural change within large organisations. The framework is outlined below and I’ve elaborated on the stages based on examples from the conference and my own experience.

1. Celestial alignment—High-level commitment and timing

There’s no time like the present… unless presently your CEO has other priorities on their mind.

You can drive culture change within your team any time you like, but trying to get broader buy-in to significant change will sooner-or-later be met with significant resistance unless you have strong commitment from the top.

Often, this becomes a waiting game, the change we’re looking for is a no-brainer and we know it will get our CEO’s attention sooner or later. This shouldn’t stop you from being ready to pounce once the planets align.

It also shouldn’t discourage you from making a start. In fact, a great way to get the top-level commitment is to start with your team, measure and demonstrate the positive impact the change has had for your team, and then package that up to present to leaders above you.

There’s nothing more powerful than a local example of the new culture working and the impact it’s having—not only does this culture work, but it works within our organisation!

2. Values, beliefs and principles

Organisational culture is a really difficult thing to define in a clear and tangible way. David Needle’s definition is clear and gives important clues as to how to communicate a culture we’re targeting: “organizational culture represents the collective values, beliefs and principles of organizational members”.

Values, beliefs and principles have a fair degree of overlap, so you don’t necessarily need all three clearly documented for your organisation. However, there are subtle distinctions that are worth understanding.

Values should represent what the organisation ‘values’ (apologies for the reciprocal definition). These are often one or two word phrases that give a high level summary of behaviours or character-traits that are considered valuable in staff. For example, the Victorian Government Justice agencies use Courage, Integrity, and Curiosity.

Principles are more like rules. The Agile Manifesto shows both what Agile practitioners value and their Agile principles.

Beliefs are slightly different again. A belief captures a mindset that the organisation or staff use to make judgements about the world. Organisational ‘beliefs’ serve as rules of thumb, helping to put staff in the right mindset to make decisions consistent with the culture of the organisation. For example: “If we’re happy at work, our customers will be happy”. In this context, they walk very closely alongside principles, and can be presented in the same list.

I really like Traffika’s 7 core values. They represent a mix of traditional values (e.g. ‘forever learning’), principles (e.g. ‘swim upstream’) and beliefs (e.g. ‘give and empower to receive and achieve’)—however they work as a list of organisational values as the organisation ‘values’ them all.

Where you may need to split your principles from your values is if you end up with too many for one list. As a rule of thumb, you want between 3 and 7 values. 2 is likely not enough—unless you’ve found a really elegant pair of values with powerful emergent benefits. 8 is probably too many—unless you just can’t trim them back and you’ve found a clever way to make all 8 memorable.

Collaboration and buy-in

Organisational culture is a two-way street, it needs to be top-down and bottom-up at the same time (see “The future is already here…” below).

Take a collaborative approach to developing the new values. Facilitate workshops with both your leadership team and include a representation of staff from across your organisation to be your ‘culture champions’.

Getting staff’s input from the ‘coal face’ will help ground the new values in reality. The facilitator’s job will be to help everyone see the possibilities of a different future, but a dose of reality will result in a better, more robust outcome.

Part of the messaging during the roll-out phase should include references to the collaborative process of developing the values. This will result in increased buy in from staff in general and an early set of champions who ‘get it’ and are committed at grass-roots level.

Re-framing mindsets

Where beliefs are worth extra attention is the individual beliefs or mindsets you hear or get a sense of during the development of your new organisational culture. These can be empowering mindsets, in which case you may wish to adopt them as part of the organisation’s documented culture.

Or (often more importantly) they may be be defeatist mindsets or limiting beliefs, anti-stories that will prevent this person and those around them from taking the new values seriously. This is great intell to have, because if you hear it once or twice, its likely there are many others in the organisation who think the same way.

You can only fight a destructive story by replacing it with a better constructive story. And it’s the same with beliefs/mindsets. It is your job to re-frame these errors in thinking and preemptively address them in your key messages for the broader roll-out to come.

For example, you may hear “we’ve tried this before and failed, this will fail again”. You now need to demonstrate as part of your key messages that “we’ve tried this before and failed, but we learned from that failure and this time we’re doing x, y and z to ensure its success”.

Some destructive mindsets may be so pervasive in the organisation they need to be addressed directly as a core value. For example, if your organisation is extremely internally-focused, you may need a core value of ‘customer-focused’ to help combat that.

Follow the bubbles

Organisational values and principles form the basis of how your new culture is documented and communicated. They become a source of alignment for your organisation so everyone is running in the same direction. They provide boundaries for staff while allowing flexibility within—creativity often flourishes within boundaries.

Values also provide a source of clarity and direction for leaders and staff trying to make difficult decisions amongst a very complex professional environment.

Navy and fighter-jet personnel are prepared so if they crash or otherwise end up in the ocean at night, they know they will be disoriented and won’t be able to tell up from down using their internal balance system. They are trained quite simply to relax and “follow the bubbles” as the bubbles will always take you in the right direction.

Organisational values are the bubbles for when we get disoriented and are having difficulty knowing which direction to follow at work.

3. Roll-out—Start small and maintain momentum

Having organisational values is a fantastic start, but its really just the beginning. Those values are not providing any value for your organisation until they’re rolled out across your staff. This roll-out needs to achieve several specific things:

  1. Staff understand what each of the values mean

  2. Staff accept that the values are important, apply to them, and they commit to living by them at work (i.e. ‘buy-in’)

  3. Staff understand what the values mean in the context of their specific roles—e.g. What specific behaviours are acceptable and unacceptable in my role.

The future is already here, its just not evenly distributed

Part 2 here is often the most challenging, especially for staff who have worked in the organisation for a long time. There can be entrenched mindsets here and a sense that they’re being told that how they’ve done their job in the past wasn’t good enough.

Key messages should focus on the continuous improvement nature of the change, and include a component that captures examples of where the values are already being modelled in the organisation. For example:

  • “The new values are part of our ongoing quest to continually improve what we do and how we do it”

  • “As part of rolling out the values, we need you to help us understand how they relate to your role, how you’ve been aligned with them in the past and how we could improve as an organisation”

  • “The future is already here, its just not evenly distributed”—William Gibson. “We want to see examples of where you’re already doing it so we can use it to demonstrate the success to the rest of the organisation”

Remember, only use these key messages if you’re genuine about them. Don’t just use them as a gimmick. People will see through a gimmick and it will have the opposite effect, they will lose trust for you and resist the change you’re driving.

Keepin’ it real

Part 3 above is about making the values real for people. Not just a list of words, icons, principles. Staff need to understand how this applies to their day-to-day work. This is about identifying specific behaviours that apply in the context of their work that would be considered aligned or not-aligned with the new culture and values.

The most powerful way to find the right behaviours and embed them is to have staff come up with the behaviours themselves. Train up team leaders across the organisation to hold workshops with their team to come up with the specific behaviours that are real in their work. Providing examples and case studies helps, but it will be more meaningful if staff come up with the behaviours themselves.

People are not Pokemon, you won’t catch them all

Some people will be harder to engage and win over than others. This is normal. It helps to think about the staff within your organisation as roughly falling into one of three groups:

  1. Early adopters

    • Those staff who are ready for change, or who get on-board with new direction eagerly.

    • These people will see the organisational benefits of what you’re doing, and that will be enough to convince them to join in and support.

    • Getting these people involved establishes quick wins and starts your ball rolling. Momentum is key!

  1. Resistors

    • These staff are not easily swayed, however, with a little convincing, and peer pressure seeing the early adopters getting involved, they’ll come around.

    • Unfortunately, the broader organisational or customer benefits alone will not be enough to bring them around.

    • To win the resistors over you’ll need to find out what they value, and tailor your messages to focus on benefits that matter to them.

  1. Boulders

    • There will always be some people who won’t be persuaded to join your cause.

    • These people either see change as a threat, or are in a place of deep apathy towards their work.

    • You are extremely unlikely to win these people over and your energy is better invested elsewhere.

    • They may even try to work against you and erode others’ confidence in what you’re doing. Generally, if you have enough other people on-board already, the damage they can do is minimal. Best to just walk away.

The goal here is to keep building momentum. You don’t need everyone on-board, just a ‘critical mass’ of enough staff throughout enough of the organisation. Just like a nuclear reaction, reaching ‘critical mass’ will sustain the energy and maintain the culture by spreading automatically from person to person—like neutrons spreading from atom to atom.

4. Systemic—Keeping the dream alive

Now that the current staff are on-board with the new culture and are living and breathing it day-by-day, we need to turn our attention to systems that will persist this culture over time.

After the training and workshops become a faded memory, the posters are replaced with the latest initiatives, and staff come and go through attrition and recruitment…. How will you ensure your new culture stays alive?

Remember, this is about maintaining the ‘critical mass’.

If you can maintain enough staff who ‘get it’, and live it, then it will rub off on the rest. But you need to keep that core alive:

  1. Update induction documentation. New staff need to be introduced to the values and what they mean for their role. This is often best achieved through face-to-face training, however inclusion in reading material or online training is better than not referencing it at all.

  2. Publish your values and examples/awards publicly. This has several benefits, it makes your commitment to the culture public, and staff will realise how important it is considered to the business, but it will also attract the types of people for who this culture seems like a good fit. So you’ll get better applicants.

  3. Tie your values into your recruitment and selection processes. This ensures that you are setting the expectations early and prioritising new staff who have the right attitude from the start. After all, you can train skills, attitude is much harder.

  4. Centre formal and peer-to-peer awards and recognition programs around recognising when staff are behaving in alignment with the new culture and values.

  5. Structure performance review processes and scorecards around alignment with the values.

Where is your organisation in this cycle?

Is your organisation mid-roll-out? Or have they not yet started their journey to the culture they need?

For those who have good organisational values, is the culture embedded in operational processes, such as recruitment and induction?

Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear what’s working or not working in your neck of the woods.

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