When It Comes to Culture, Change Management Isn’t Enough

When It Comes to Culture, Change Management Isn’t Enough

Man pushing rock up hill as an example of how difficult organizational culture change can be.

Changing culture requires effective change management but change management is rarely if ever, enough to achieve meaningful and sustainable culture change. Imagine an entrepreneurial organization that values speed, creativity and innovation. Embedded in its culture is the belief that success depends on the ability to unleash the potential of individuals, be agile and take risks. To this end, leaders have created a supportive, people first work environment that promotes autonomy, flexibility and adaptability. This has attracted talented people who are self-motivated and in return have the freedom to experiment and do what they believe is best in any given situation.

In this organization, ‘processes’ are perceived to be synonymous with bureaucracy, controls and slow decision-making. However, current business realities demand that the organization decrease its operating costs and increase operational efficiency. As a result, senior leaders decided to invest in business process management with the objective of streamlining work and removing waste.

When Is Change Management Not Enough?

A Lean Six Sigma Black Belt was hired to lead the new process improvement initiative. She formed a team with a mix of existing and new employees to document and lead the redesign of core processes. The team consulted with business and function leaders using their input to develop a project plan based on business priorities. Recognizing that the potential for employee resistance was high, the team also put together a change management plan that employed a high engagement strategy wherein employees affected by the process changes were actively involved in the redesign effort. In the meantime, an effort was directed at educating people on the need for the change and communicating plans and expectations.

Senior leaders also recognized the shift to more process was going to be difficult and were authentic in their desire to be supportive of the change. They spoke at townhalls and staff meetings, as well as hosted breakfast meetings and lunch and learns, where they explained why the business process improvement initiative was necessary and stated their personal commitment to making it a success.

However, despite the process team’s best efforts, there was significant resistance from people at all levels. Rather than follow the new process, employees continued to do things the ‘old way’. To make matters worse, this passive resistance was implicitly condoned by leaders who looked the other way. When the process team raised issues and concerns, the leaders agreed to act but did nothing. In the end, the process improvement initiative was deemed a failure and shelved.

What Was Missing?

The Commitment of Senior Leaders

Puzzle piece missing indicating the common missing factor or any culture change initiative.The single most important factor in determining the success of any culture change initiative is the level of commitment of senior leaders. Without this, culture change will not happen – period. By level of commitment, we mean active involvement, which includes being role models of the expected behaviors and designing the organization to create the conditions to encourage and support these behaviors. In this case, the lack of consistency in leaders’ words and actions undermined the efforts of the business process team.

Ignoring the Power of Personal Values

One of the main reasons people joined the company is due to the high value placed on autonomy, flexibility, responsiveness and personal accountability. This did not apply only to lower level employees. Senior executives and other leaders were hired or promoted because of their ability to get results demonstrating these very qualities.

Enter the new business process initiative. Implicit in its mandate and scope is the message that consistency and compliance (aka efficiency) are more important and more valued than personal accountability, flexibility and responsiveness. In effect, it said to people that the values, qualities and capabilities that had made them successful to date were no longer of value. This is a direct threat at a deeply personal level.

No matter how strong the business case, people are not going to embrace or accept a change that directly conflicts with their personal values, beliefs and experience. Explaining why the change is needed simply is insufficient to shift existing beliefs. In fact, no amount of communication or education would be successful in this situation.

Disconnect Between the Change and Brand

In this company, flexibility, agility and responsiveness are embedded in its brand and customer experience. Any customer, no matter how small, could contact someone at the company knowing they would get a solution tailored to their specific needs. And, they could get it quickly and hassle-free because every employee was empowered to do what was needed to make it happen. This model of flexibility with empowered accountability differentiated the company from its slower, more process-driven competitors leading to its current success and growth.

While the shift to more process made financial sense, it was in direct conflict with the brand values and everything employees believed important to customers.

Disconnect Between the Message and Experience

Acceptance of the change is even less likely when the message is at odds with people’s experience. They are told that processes reduce costs, decrease waste and increase efficiency yet, in many cases, while the process improvements benefit the overall organization, they are detrimental to the performance of their group.

As a result, instead of insisting on compliance with the new processes, leaders in the affected groups allow and even encourage people to do things outside the process. The message? It is okay to ignore the process and continue the old way of doing things. To make things worse, senior leaders turn a blind eye and don’t hold these leaders accountable for compliance. Not only does this undermine the efficacy of the business process initiative, but it also erodes credibility and fosters cynicism and skepticism leading to increased resistance to change.

The Answer? Harness the Power of the Current Culture

In making the decision to invest in business process management, senior leaders did what senior leaders do best and that is to solve a problem with a rational, proven solution. After all, it is hard to argue with the merits of improving processes to reduce waste and lower costs. The problem is the solution was counter-cultural and therefore doomed to fail.

Image of group of people discussing a message and the experience.

So, what should they have done? The business reality of needing to reduce costs and increase operational efficiencies remains. The answer is to look for solutions that harness the power of the current culture versus trying to implement one that is doomed to fail. Eventually, the solution may include some degree of process management, but it is not the starting point and certainly not the answer.

In this organization, autonomy and accountability are deeply embedded in the way people work and interact. They are used to solving problems and react badly —- no, resent it — when leaders or people in other groups tell them what and how to do things. To them, this is an indication of a lack of respect and trust in their abilities.

A more effective approach is to present leaders and employees with the business problem and look to them to find solutions. This is not a committee or task force approach but one that empowers people while holding them accountable for the result. In this situation, senior leaders set the stage by communicating the business need (what and why), the boundaries and limitations, and desired outcome in terms of measurable results. The objective is to give people the information and tools they need to arrive at the best possible solution by building on the strengths inherent in the current culture.

Looking for Help with Your Company’s Culture?

Changing culture can seem like a daunting task, especially during periods of growth, but it doesn’t have to be. Culture has a high capacity to help businesses achieve genuinely great things. If you need help defining or improving your business’ culture, check out some of Culture-Strategy Fit’s excellent cultural products and services, or give us a call today at (800) 976-1660 for a free consultation.

Dr. Nancie Evans

Dr. Nancie Evans is co-founder and VP Client Solutions at Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. specializing in the alignment of organizational culture and strategy. She has developed a unique set of leading-edge diagnostic tools and approaches that provide leaders with deep insights into the culture of their organizations, how it is supporting or getting in the way of strategy execution, as well as the levers that they can use to drive rapid culture change.

Culture-Strategy Fit®

Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. is a leading culture and executive leadership consulting firm conducting groundbreaking work in leveraging culture to drive strategy and performance. It’s suite of culture surveys and culture alignment tools are used by market-leading organizations around the world.

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