Let's Talk About Culture Change

The most daunting change in an organization is a change in its culture. It's hard enough to change one person's behavior -- how can you change the behavior of an entire organization?
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All change in organizations is challenging, but perhaps the most daunting is changing culture. There are at least two reasons for this: (1) Culture is a soft concept. If there's no concrete way of defining or measuring culture, then how can you change it? And (2) culture represents collective norms and behaviors. It's hard enough to change one person's behavior -- how can you change the behavior of an entire organization?

But if managers want to build high-performing organizations, they need to address culture change. Here's an example that my colleague Keith Michaelson shared with me of how one manager succeeded in changing the culture of his operation:

Ted Wilson* had spent his entire career with a large electric utility when he was asked to become plant manager for one of the company's generating stations. The only problem was that its weak operating record and long history of internal conflicts had given this station the reputation of being a tough place to work and an even tougher place to manage. For a manager with bigger career aspirations, Ted realized that changing this reputedly negative culture would be key to the plant's success -- and his own success as well.

To get started, Ted made himself visible throughout the station, talking to people on all three shifts. During one of his walk-arounds, he went into the control room on the third shift where one of the operators asked, "Who are you?" Ted introduced himself, and the operator replied, "I like you already. We never met the last plant manager." But Ted quickly realized that being a nice guy wasn't going to make enough of a difference; especially when his observations revealed the negative attitudes of many workers and conflict between the functions, shifts, and individuals.

To tackle these detrimental aspects of the culture, Ted convened his leadership team to develop a vision and values statement for the station -- something they had never done before. After something of a struggle, they developed a highly aspirational vision ("... to be the standard against which all other power stations are measured...") and a set of values/behaviors for achieving that vision. These included statements such as "Embrace Conflict Resolution," "Show Confidence in the Chain of Command," "Have a Questioning Attitude," and "Take Ownership for Our Performance." Most of these core values were missing on a day-to-day basis, and they provided a true north so that the leadership team could have a common direction for change.

The real challenge of course was translating these behaviors -- which would constitute the new culture -- into reality. Knowing that the usual communications channels would be inadequate, Ted instructed his managers to model the behaviors, and use real-time day-to-day interactions for teaching and reinforcing. If they could "convert" people, even one at a time, eventually there would be enough critical mass for the new culture to take hold. For example, when Ted or his managers heard workers using profanity (a common occurrence in a power plant) they would tell them, "You've got to stop with the obscenities. If we're going to be a place that other power plants want to emulate, we can't talk that way." Initially this was met with skepticism or disbelief, but with time and repetition the idea took hold.

Similarly, when Ted saw that many employees were habitually extending their "ten-minute" breaks to thirty minutes or more, he called the shop stewards together and (instead of starting disciplinary actions) enlisted them in getting people to take more ownership for their own performance. In addition, Ted practiced more proactive teaching, such as bringing together previously warring groups or individuals with an internal expert in conflict resolution and visibly celebrating key performance improvements in the plant.

As a result of all this work, one year after Ted became station manager the operation had improved performance on almost all of its metrics, and had gone 250 consecutive days without a safety incident (a major achievement). And while the culture had not changed completely, it was definitely moving in the right direction.

What are the key lessons from Ted's experience with culture change that might be applied in other organizations? What could he have done differently? What other suggestions would you add?

*Name has been changed.

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

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