HEADLINE: “Evolve, transform, and sustain modern practices of an effective, high-performing workplace that can compete in a speed-driven, dynamic world while delivering steady and profitable growth on a quarterly basis.”
Unfortunately this is not a fairy tale or a Hollywood movie plot … but the challenging reality of being a leader in today’s companies.
Culture matters big-time … the secrets Google, Nike, and Facebook know are becoming of great interest because efforts to drive change and innovation are not succeeding at the scale and speed needed. We are in The Information Age – an internet-centric, inter-connected, in-depth exchange of political, social, and economic systems with global impact … no longer a manufacturing economy peddling products to consumers. Yet, most organizations still manage with embedded (and largely unconscious) mindsets, systems, and habits from the previous era: The Industrial Age. The hierarchical, top-down model of how work should be done needs a fresh look – it came from an age when controlling people was viewed as the way to gain productivity. We know better now.
One important model for consideration is to draw on our tribal roots of human communities. These were characterized by strong leadership, accountability, and clear structure … grounded in principles of collaboration, relationship and teamwork.
In 15 years’ experience working with executives to help them understand what culture is – and why it’s so important to manage it proactively – we have found 4 significant actions to foster a modern workplace culture. These themes are not being addressed systemically by most change management approaches. Left to chance, results in organizations (profitable growth, key talent retention, integration post-merger) will be increasingly at risk.
1) It’s all about the customer. Customers are armed with better information and more power than ever. Technological speed and innovation has made it possible to know more, faster, on both sides. People – whether consumers or businesses – want to buy products and solutions that are specifically tailored to their needs and wants.
The company who does not understand its customer deeply, risks extinction. Truly. It is essential for any organization – in every industry and of every size – to foster a regular, connect-the-dots conversation between the strategic (executive), operational (mid-manager) and front-line performers in the business. Without this, decisions made at the top are disconnected from those on the front lines. Front line people hold the key to unlocking solutions for adapting, changing and responding to evolving customer needs and opportunities. If you have not fully linked up your executives, managers, and top performers in a robust and ongoing conversation about the customer, the strategy and how to adapt quicker … it’s like your organization is operating with a big disconnect of the brain from the body.
2) Decision rights and decision making is often paralyzed or confusing, due to matrix reporting structures (often without the necessary relationship-building to support them) and outdated hierarchical thinking. Decisions are “where the rubber meets the road” in business. Too much of the time, leaders spend precious time discussing an issue or problem in terms of “who’s fault is it” and “how did it happen” (past-focused) and not enough time framing “What decision needs to be made, how will it best serve our customer (internal or external) and who is going to make it?” (future focused). That series of 3 questions – given proper attention across an organization – is transformational in itself.
It is very common for organizations to lack good decision process:
- Name the decision.
- Who is making it?
- Is this the right person?
- Are we using a collaborative or directive decision process? Etc.)
Symptoms: Decisions made too slowly creates bottlenecks, increased costs, and missed deadlines (which directly or indirectly impacts the customer). Or, a phenomenon of “infinite appeal” in which decisions are constantly escalated upwards. This fosters disempowerment and “Why bother?” attitudes, which shuts down “caring spirit” – the lifeblood of any business.
The ideal place for decisions to be made is closest to the customer. Those making strategic decisions up the chain must do so armed with current and relevant information about the customer. Too often in our culture assessment process, we hear the lament from the front lines “I have important information and ideas, but nobody in management wants to listen.” (a missed opportunity for any organization seeking to grow and keep great talent). It is also common for an organization to argue – or be vague about – “who is making the decision.”
One CEO we worked with was “succeeded” to the role from his peers and needed a clear process to elevate the decisions he participated in. He named the following as his decision rights:
* Final call on the businesses we are in;
* Final call on the strategic priorities of the organization;
* Final call on the capital investments we will make (with Board approval as they were public);
* Last but probably most important: Visibly champion the cultural tone of the organization.
Everything else he claimed: “I have nagging rights but not decision rights.” That was followed by a similar process of defining decision rights for his direct reports, and so on down the chain. Powerful conversation. Of course not as simple as doing this one time in a large organization. But the conversation about “who is making what decisions” needs more air-time in almost every business.
You can also start this conversation at the Project Team or Department level, to clarify “What decisions do we own … Really?” If the answer is NONE – ie, you have accountability to deliver on commitments not within your direct control (eg, “Software must be delivered by 1-1-14” was a decision made by Sales, on which the Software Dev group has no input – and yet it’s a completely unrealistic deliver agreement.) Then ask: “How can we improve this decision process to best serve the customer?”
Focusing on decisions – where they are made and whether the process is effective … is an essential conversation to building the modern culture. Decision making is one of the “5 culture habits” outlined in our Culture Builder Toolkit – a 4-stage guidebook for shifting and aligning a culture to an organization’s strategy or change.
3)The “definition of success” and resulting goals are fuzzy or misaligned starting from the top, creating internal competition and reinforcing silos. Most organizations do not clearly define success in terms of a vision people can make decisions by. G.E. under Welch stated “We will be #1 or #2 in every market we are in, or we will exit.” Most organizations don’t have anything close to this level of clarity and alignment. Thus, they are experiencing exponentially larger confusion as competition for resources filters down the chain. Most organizations suffer from pervasive burnout on flavor-of-the-month change initiatives that lack the disciplined focus of a true winning organization. As a result, most employees and managers are struggling to perform at their best amid constantly changing activities with no connection to a meaningful purpose. Exhausting!
Recently in a Wall Street Journal article, Jack Welch addressed the importance of mission (as it relates to the largely misunderstood practice of differentiation – ie, ranking employees.) “Differentiation starts with communication—exhaustive communication—of a company’s mission (where it’s going) and its values (the behaviors that are going to get it there). I’m not talking about putting a plaque on the lobby wall with the usual generic gobbledygook. I’m talking about a company’s leaders being so specific, granular, and vivid about mission and values that employees could recite them in their sleep.
Most leaders have not defined and communicated winning in this way, and conveyed clearly what people must do to support it, how they are measured, and where they stand in their personal effort. He further makes the point: “I realize that some believe the bell-curve aspect of differentiation is “cruel.” That always strikes me as odd. We grade children in school, often as young as 9 or 10, and no one calls that cruel. But somehow adults can’t take it? Explain that one to me.”
Further, organizations today cannot succeed based on maximizing efficiency of assembly line production or on managers holding all the power. Success now, requires complex information exchanges and relationships among people from very different walks of life – even countries. Fostering collaboration across boundaries is CRUCIAL to be able to adapt with enough speed, to align with the increasingly dynamic market conditions, to serve diverse customer groups. Yet, these skill sets are not actively part of the curriculum taught in most schools, including universities. Thus, most businesses are slowed by an undertow of political power dynamics, that foster “turf wars”: rather than true problem solving. This drains energy to face the REAL competition.
4) Employee engagement is a huge focus in the HR realm, but companies who engage their people effectively are not necessarily more successful – “employee engagement” is often confused with “culture” which is more broad. What makes people engaged? Knowing how they contribute to winning, trustworthy leadership who remove road blocks on the winning path, knowing where I stand and where I can grow, and the ability to develop and master new skills to succeed and grow.
As Edgar Schein said (author of Corporate Culture Survival Guide) in a recent Linked In post, “There is a tendency to toss around ‘We need culture change’ when there is lack of performance in the business – and not define what you really need to see change. Evolving a modern workplace culture begins with courageous and candid conversations among top leaders about:
- “What IS winning here, in crystal clear terms?”
- “What results need to improve in the business?”
- “What cultural tone and behaviors need to shift to support that?”
It has been surprising to me how many executives find this a highly unique idea … and think “We don’t have time for culture.” (and with all due respect, we suggest that if you are not managing this very essential reality as a business process, then you will be at the mercy the law of diminishing returns!)
My mission: Evolve “The Modern Workplace Culture” past “Does everyone feel good here” or “Are our people happy” to “What are the modern management and workplace habits we need to adopt to compete in today’s markets?”
My definition of success: Retire having impacted at least 1000 organizations in fostering a “modern workplace culture”.
Progress: About 1/3 of the way on the journey … given what I know today.
I believe deeply in the power of forging The Modern Culture, an idea whose time has come.
If you agree, please help me get the word out by forwarding this blog to your colleagues and friends!
Lisa Jackson is a corporate culture expert and co-author of 2 books including the brand new “Culture Builder Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide for Assessing and Changing Corporate Culture.” She specializes in teaching companies and leaders how to align and transform their corporate culture to maximize profitable growth, productivity, and innovation.
For free tools and resources on culture change, visit www.CorporateCulturePros.com