13 June 2011

10 Lessons of Organizational Culture Transformation

If you're not familiar with my writing, a few notes of explanation. UCaPP is an acronym representing the phrase, "Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Proximity," (or "ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate," depending on usage), the description I use to characterize contemporary societal conditions. BAH refers to "Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, and Hierarchical," a description of traditional management and organizations. UCaPP organizations are mostly described as "collaborative" in the literature, but they are much more than that. For more details, you are invited to visit the wiki site for Valence Theory of Organization - after reading this post, of course!

I’m finishing up a seven-month contract that helped to initiate an organizational culture transformation in a newly acquired Toronto subsidiary of a large American organization. The American organization’s culture is strongly towards the UCaPP end of the BAH-UCaPP organization typology spectrum. On the other hand, the Toronto organization was strongly BAH when I was first introduced to it, and demonstrated many attributes and behaviours that would qualify them for organizational healing—being able to strongly benefit from my practice as an organizational therapist.

Although the formal educational program was prescribed by the parent organization, the Toronto site had specific needs that went well beyond those addressed by the otherwise excellent and insightful formal materials. Nonetheless, the results have been nothing short of outstanding: by the beginning of the program’s sixth month, overall productivity – units out the door – increased by 70%, with customer complaints down to a small fraction of what they were in January. Employment growth in new production staff has been nothing short of explosive, and the line and middle management ranks – initially fearful of what such growth would mean relative to the old ways of doing supervision – are (mostly) feeling quite good about how well they’re coping.

I’ve compiled ten lessons learned from this remarkably successful organizational culture transformation that, not surprisingly, are consistent with the predictions of Valence Theory. See how many might be useful to you as you reflect on navigating your organization through the complexities of today’s environment of uncertainty:
  1. Culture comes from values; values obviate vision as the organization’s source of impetus. When people work from a place that aligns fundamental values among all members, shared knowledge of where to head is a natural outcome. On the other hand, a vision imposed by an small, elite group at the top of the organization necessitates continual reinforcement (and enforcement) through ever-growing, extrinsic incentive plans.
  2. Like learning a new language, culture change venue scripts seem artificial at first, become more comfortable with practice, and evolve into the organization’s lingua franca. The challenge is to ensure that those who are not directly involved in the “language lessons” that serve to inculcate the new culture are nonetheless given opportunities to participate in the new vocabulary of practices, behaviours, and attitudes.
  3. Relying on training as the sole or primary mechanism to effect culture change is completely ineffective. On the other hand, continual peer reinforcement on-the-job, coupled with a concerted program of individual coaching and counselling for key members, with a limited amount of well-contextualized education, are essential to begin the process. Notice I said, “begin.” The process of transformation necessarily continues long after the formal program has been completed.
  4. There will be an occasion – and usually no more than two – in which the new culture’s principles will have to be violated in order to demonstrate the seriousness of the new culture’s principles. This usually results in one or two people being asked to find other employment. As I have pointed out elsewhere, “it is perhaps ironic that coercive, legitimated, and hierarchical leadership is occasionally needed to enforce the transformation away from coercive, legitimated, and hierarchical leadership.
  5. Embracing and committing to the new culture is always a matter of individual choice. What is not a choice is the tight coupling between embracing the culture and sustaining one’s membership (e.g., employment) in the organization.
  6. The person who, in the past, has been identified by legitimated management (i.e., those who are most vested in the “way we do things around here”) as the trouble-maker, malcontent, or the one-most-likely-to-be-written-up-for-disciplinary-action, is likely your best ally in identifying necessary changes, and effecting culture change—as long as you can overcome his/her legitimate cynicism and long-reinforced distrust of management-imposed “change.”
  7. In a UCaPP organization, compensation is at least partially – and ideally completely – decoupled from job performance. The more strongly extrinsic motivators influence an individual’s contribution to the organization, the more BAH the organization necessarily becomes, and the less committed is the individual to the organization’s values as its primary impetus.
  8. In a UCaPP environment, no one is required to give “110%.” Instead, more productivity is paradoxically experienced as needing less expended effort. Conversely, in a BAH environment, 50% (or more) of the organization’s potential is wasted in counter-productive, energy-consuming behaviours and well-rehearsed defensive scripts.
  9. Blindly adopting so-called best practices in a bid to become as successful as some arbitrary industry leader is a management cargo cult. Transformative education is founded on experiential learning, not plagiarism.
  10. The vast majority of benefits of organizational culture transformation are necessarily qualitative, not quantitative. However, there are consequential, indirect benefits – some of them economic – that are measurable, although one cannot usually establish clear, deterministic, causal connections. This means that one cannot “prove” a priori, tangible benefits of organizational culture transformation, much to the chagrin of traditionally trained managers. Remember—when it comes to effecting sustainable, truly beneficial change throughout an organization and among its members, complexity is your friend.

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