As a consultant and coach to organizations trying to improve organizational results through strategy execution and performance management, questions about how to improve organizational culture crop up from clients ALL the time. This makes perfect sense, of course, because if your people aren't bought in and supporting these kinds of efforts, you might as well not bother.
But, as anyone who has ever tried to truly change a culture knows, it can be incredibly difficult. Organizational inertia is a powerful force. Overcoming it requires energy, endurance, and strong leadership from a committed, charismatic senior team.
Thankfully, just as there are training plans that have helped transform complete couch potatoes into marathon runners, there is a set of proven steps that can help senior leaders drive and sustain true and dramatic change. Here -- at a high-level -- they are:
Step 1: Define the new behaviors you want to see in place.
If the leadership team has determined that the culture should become more performance-based, they need to define exactly what behaviors they want to see exhibited. These should be consistent with the current values of the organization, since the values typically don’t change. Here are some example behaviors they might want to cultivate:
- Laser-like focus on achieving shared goals
- Leaders actively managing key outcome measures
- Owners of measures, goals, and initiatives taking real responsibility for performance
Step 2: Establish best practice processes and structures to drive these behaviors.
Sounds good, but how do you actually identify "best practices?" One way is to find an organization that already is highly performance driven and see what processes and structures they have in place. A great way to find organizations like that is through the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program or the state-level equivalent in your area. Previous recipients of these awards are very willing to share how they became successful, either at the program's annual conference or often on a more ad-hoc basis with organizations learning about the program.
Some examples that you'll find when you do this benchmarking:
- Strategic planning approaches that result in more narrowly focused, achievable objectives
- Data-driven business performance reviews that reinforce accountability
- Technology that supports the processes and structures
Talking to people at these kinds of high-performing organizations (or consultants who have led organizations through these transformations) will provide you with the nuts and bolts that translate these broad ideas into best practices.
Step 3: Communicate With, Train, and Coach Employees.
This is where the energy, endurance, and charsima noted above come in especially handy. Employees at all levels must become so good at exhibiting the new behaviors and utilizing the new processes and structures that they become second nature, which requires a considerable amount of good leadership, coaching, and ongoing communication.
Since change is inherently difficult, it must be made clear why and how this is a "win-win" for those involved. Fear and lack of information will sabotage even the best ideas, so you have to communicate, communicate, communicate, train, and coach.
The best coaches are those who have been on this journey before and also possess great coaching skills, which often means that the first coaches are consultants like me, but ultimately management must learn the processes and coaching skills to truly change (and sustain) the culture from within.
Step 4: Align Organizational Rewards & Recognition.
To reinforce the changes you've just made, it's critical that organizational rewards, such as bonus and incentive compensation plans, as well as internal awards and recognition programs, also change so that they reward the leaders and employees who:
- Exhibit the new behaviors
- Incorporate new processes and structures into their daily roles
- Demonstrate results in the strategically-aligned areas that they own
Changing culture isn't easy, but it's not impossible either.