Ten Real Steps to a Healthier Culture

We are always asked in classes, interviews, and on-site with clients … how do we build a better culture?  People want a one-word answer like “Lean” or “Agile” or “McKinsey,” but the truth is there is no one way to build a culture, a process, or a way-of-working.  Lean can help you find changes in mindset and provide some tools for positive change, but it is neither a cultural panacea nor a roadmap for sustainable acceptance.

In this short post and the posts that follow, we’ll lay out ten steps (not quick, not easy) for a healthier culture. They are not THE ten steps, they aren’t magic, and if you are a jerk and force people to do them, they will not work at all.  So, pay attention to the first few steps, they deal specifically with the ability to introduce change (improvement, growth, culture, whatever, it’s all new stuff) in a way that your company can actually use.

 A few quick definitions:

Process – Process is the social contract your teams and your organization agree upon to provide value. They define it, the engage it, they improve it.  Process is intentional. If a process does not include a way to improve itself, it will not improve itself. If a process does not directly address quality, you will have shoddy product. If a process does not have a mechanism to connect with the customer, you will lose focus on customer needs.

Change – Change is scary for people and comes in two flavors: intentional, unintentional, and directed. Intentional Change is generally an improvement that comes from within the organization (preferably from within the group that is changing), is well understood both in rationale and impact, and is provided focus by people taking on the work the change requires.  Unintentional change comes from changes in the market, staff changes, growth, customer needs, regulation, etc. This is almost always a surprise, the ability of the organization to recognize the opportunities in the change, deal with it thoughtfully, and allow it to improve the organization as quickly as possible should be a core goal of every company.  Directed change comes from within, which can still be frightening if it is communicated poorly, comes without warning, or involves no input from the people being asked to change. Sometimes the surprise is necessary, often it’s not and ends up derailing the change itself. 

Team – A group of people focused on the delivery of specific customer value.

Company – A group of teams focused on the delivery of customer value.

Professional – A real live human being who works in teams to provide customer value. They are the largest investment of an organization and the most under-valued.

The Ten Things (each to be fleshed out in a longer post):

1.       Understand Positional Power – It’s a blessing and a curse, but every group – no matter how flat – has people with positional power. It’s either used well (collaboratively) or it’s used poorly (coercively). It needs to be understood to be effective.

2.       Invite Change, Don’t Induce It – When groups work together to change, they choose the pace, the direction, the focus, and the personality of the change. If you force change, you will get rebellion at best and indifference at worst.

3.       Understand Fear – Most human systems have some fear. Know where it is and respect it, even if it is unintentional. Know this: fear is never imagined. Your role as a leader or a change agent is to drive fear out of the workplace.

4.       Know Your Players – Find your change agents, support them, elevate them, give them what they need. Without a network of people interested in change, it simply won’t happen.

5.       Visualize Everything – During time of change clarity and constancy of purpose are in peril. Changing roles, products, relationships, etc. mean that people need the story of the work constantly refreshed and updated.

6.       Change Slowly, Deliberately, and With Feedback – Change often fails because guidance is too vague (Go out and continuously improve, now.) or is too specific (We are going to follow the rules from this book and change everything we do today because they know our business better than we do). Neither of these age-old models work.  Change must happen with copious feedback, careful consideration and collaboration.

7.       Change is a Gift – Ease the pain of the people who will be changing first.  What in their status quo is most professionally painful for them? Solve that first. Put positive change in the context and value needs of the person who will actually be doing the changing.

8.       Build Change into the System – Make your ways of working visualize work, spot problems or opportunities early, and have the capacity (time and focus) to do the work to solve the problem or seize the opportunity.

9.       Change is Work / Overload is not Acceptable – No overloaded system can continuously improve or smoothly change. You must confront the overload in your organization and deal with it honestly and creatively.

10.   Understand Context – Balance your professional creativity with the needs of the customer. Understand them both. Creatively approach customer needs.  With that balance, your system will instinctively address change because it will always be looking for the best way to build the best product.

Over the next ten days, I will post ten more posts detailing each of these concepts.