Extra Edition / Business Management

Change Your Corporate Culture to Enable Change

April 23, 2007
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Bruce Merrifield

“Innovate or die” is not news. But, innovation requires companies to change, and unfortunately, most can’t do much more than fine-tune their past. At companies where too many top-down change initiatives have fizzled, employees can even become cynical about new change efforts and ignore them. If our company is struggling to escape its past ways in a changing world, what then is our credible, going-forward, “growth story” (vision) that we need to attract and keep better than average employees who will, in turn, help make those changes happen?

How do we change how we have been trying to change? Here’s a theory: besides top-down vision and will to change, what if we have to also have a “corporate culture” that “enables” change to happen? Will our corporate culture allow the management team, for example, to even think about how we think about change? How could we test this corporate culture hypothesis quickly and cheaply?

The “fail forward faster” guideline suggests that we should try some necessarily imperfect experiments to learn as much as we can in the shortest time for the lowest total cost. Because thought experiments are especially fast and cheap, what if we: (1) wrote down a lot of questions that we (2) deliberately choose to live with instead of offering instant, action-oriented answers or universal stops like “we tried that already” or “we are already doing that.” These two steps would be true experiments for most companies!

Below are some questions to seed the effort; perhaps they will trigger more related questions which together will create a “question map” about this tweak-our-culture theory.

• What are the specific corporate antibodies that have killed past change initiatives?

• What if we could: name those specific anti-change rules and behaviors; explore the unspoken, dysfunctional assumptions (and motives) behind them; and then, re-engineer them to create a climate that enables innovation and change?

• When was the last time we did a quick, informal “corporate culture audit” that surveyed a cross-section of employees with a promise of anonymity to find out how things really “get done or not done around here”?

To expand on the last point above, why, when, and how might we take a next step and use an hour or two of an outsider’s help (remember don’t spend a lot; test cheaply) just in case we might have some management, groupthink, blind spots, or dated clutter. Most gardens need to be weeded, and most plants in the garden need to be pruned to grow better. Why should all of the ideas that make up our corporate culture be any different?

With a promise of anonymous cover, an outsider should also be able to coax some extra information out of the bottom 80 percent of the payroll concerning what really happens in the minds and hearts of the front-liners when change edicts are handed down. And, best of all, if the outsider should deliver honest feedback that is critical about how top management is a big part of the problem, we can fire them at a small investment loss and choose to accept only the amount of reality we can handle. (Question: Do ego needs, denial, and even moderate delusions come in all degrees from the individual level to the collective team level? True or false?)

For more food for thought on the topic of “corporate culture audit,” check out these sources on the Internet:

• Go to www.wikipedia.org and read the entries on “corporate culture” and “memes” (rhymes with genes).

• Google “how to do a corporate culture audit” and do some cheap, fast reading.

• Check out this URL for ideas on “innovation memes”: www.merrifield.com/articles/SixCultureOfInnovationMemes.pdf.

• Do some quick survey work of employees without an outside expert (even cheaper and faster). Brainstorm about what would be some good questions to put on surveys for managers, sales reps, operations people, etc.?

If these questions about corporate culture are unsettling, don’t worry. Less than 4 percent of all mature companies are able to continuously innovate. Most companies have over-invested in being too:

• Efficient instead of effective;

• Short-term numbers oriented instead of steady, long-term investors in continuous innovation;

• Highly consistent and stable in how they operate (which is efficient) without trying enough new stuff that is inherently disruptive, messy at first, and could involve extra expense and stress.

• Tightly run in a hierarchal manner that actually suits most people who would rather not be individually responsible for continuously learning and failing forward at either home or on the job. Ambitious, innovative, self-starting individuals don’t work (for long), however, at stable, growing-nowhere companies.

On the other hand, most non-starter-type people are not happy being crank-turners in a slowly dying company. Most would prefer a creative balance of stability with something new that has upside for them and all stakeholders, but they both need and appreciate some social and institutional support to help them be the person they want to be. How do we re-engineer some of our corporate culture memes to reduce those memes that hinder learning, change, and growth and add ones that will enable all of the things that go into “change capacity”?

Publication date: 04/23/2007

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