A common perception is that cultural change has to start at the very top of an organization. But studies and field experience have shown that culture change can begin with the sub-culture of a work-group where a manager who is one or two levels down from senior management decides to become an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. As objective evidence of believable performance improvement becomes known to other managers, change often goes horizontal across the organization through other work-groups, then up through the line organization to top managers. There are ten guidelines that managers should follow when under-taking this kind of culture change.
- Make sure that the changes you propose are in the best interest of the overall organization, not the self-interest of your work-group. Build sustainable capability and infrastructure that benefits the entire organization rather than optimizing your own position and sub-optimizing the organization’s overall performance.
- Solve your own work-group’s problems first and become an example of the change you’re trying to achieve. Operate from a “no-blame” philosophy that doesn’t point the finger at others, but takes personal responsibility for your work-group’s performance within the organizational context it is embedded. As Jim Collins describes, when there are issues and problems to be solved, look in the mirror of personal responsibility. When there is praise and recognition to be apportioned, look out the window and ascribe credit to those who have made the change possible.
- Create your own organizational “space” and obtain additional resources based on the value you add. Don’t move in on other managers’ areas or “cherry pick” the most visible high-leverage projects. Find a new area to develop or one that has been traditionally neglected by the organization and turn it into a high-performing enterprise. Strive to build new organizational capability that can be transformed into revenue or an enhanced ability to achieve the organization’s purpose and goals.
- Align your work-group’s vision with other work-groups, departments, and functional units by focusing on the things you hold in common. While each work-group may have a different function in the overall organization, its activities should be aligned to achieve a common purpose and the goals of the overall organization. Alignment of purpose and goals and focusing on what an organization has in common are the core differences between being a “group” of people and being a “team.”
- Communicate the trade-offs of actually accomplishing change to work-group members. For example, if your goal is to increase productivity, then this will require more time and energy from group members and increased resources may not always be immediately available until the work-group demonstrates its increased productivity to top managers. But positive change often brings increased visibility with senior managers that can result in professional advancement for those involved in the change.
- Manage “meaning” for people both in and out of your work-group so changes are interpreted through the lens of your work-group’s vision. The purpose of culture (any culture) is to teach people how to “see” the world, so make sure that the actions and interactions of your work-group are properly explained and interpreted to top managers and peers so it’s clear how your vision links to the overall organization’s purpose and goals. Remember that people tend to see exactly what they expect to see, so help to shape those expectations for people both in and out of your work-group.
- Only engage in constructive conflict with other work-groups or managers, and only do this when you have to for the best interest of the overall organization. While constructive conflict can create synergy, creativity, innovation, and improvement, the destructive conflict that comes from criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling that is displayed in meetings, e-mails, and other human interactions frustrates and undermines an organization’s ability to achieve its purpose and goals.
- Cultivate allies who will support the change and form open coalitions to ensure that change is sustainable. Focus on winning the support of those who are skeptical about the change by involving them in the process or showing them how they make similar improvements in their work-groups. If the change agent follows the first seven guidelines described above, then other managers at all organizational levels will begin to line up to support the change and voluntarily put their shoulders to the wheel of increasing its momentum and ensuring its sustainability.
- Create a concrete, tangible path-forward with credible next steps and a well-defined picture of the value-added that the change will bring to the overall organization. Having established the long-term vision of the change and achieved some initial results that show change is possible, it is important to define what constitutes a “win” or how we will we know when we’ve arrived. It’s also important to map out the behaviors, skills, and process changes that will be necessary to carry the change initiative all the way to the finish line.
- Find and use measurements to reinforce the fact that change is actually happening and also to accelerate change. Use existing measures (or create new ones) to disconfirm the old ways of seeing the work-group’s level of performance and to build quantitative evidence that the change has happened and that it will be sustainable. Identify exemplars (examples) that convincingly demonstrate the value that the change is adding to your work-group and the overall organization.
The common perception that cultural change has to start at the very top of an organization has been shown to be incorrect in many organizations. Culture change can begin with the sub-culture of a work-group where a manager who is one or two levels down from senior management decides to become an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. As objective of performance improvement and increased capability become known to other managers, change often goes horizontal across the organization through other work-groups, then up through the line organization to top managers. While the specific application of the ten guidelines will change from organization to organization, field experience has shown that properly implemented the principles will hold true in for-profit, non-profit, and government organizations.
Bottom Line: Culture change can begin at any level because organizations are collective-cultural entities that are led, managed, and changed one person at a time.