ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

June 1999

Articles
100 Percent Waterproof

Taking Teams To A Higher Level

Making The Soft Stuff Hard

The King Of Leadership Programs

Merger And Acquisition: The Six Deadly Sins



Columns
Enough Is Enough

by Peter Block

Tick Tock, Your Life Is Like A Clock
by Greg Smith


Features
Sorry We're Closed: Diary Of A Shutdown

Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Pageturners
Book Review

Site Unseen

 
Views For A Change

John Runyan Responds:

Your question leaps up at me because the cultural change work that you mention has been at the heart of my work over the past 14 years. I came to these efforts with a passion born of my own years in a staff role in both the federal government and then at Weyerhaeuser Company. I have learned many lessons from my work as a consultant, trainer and facilitator both with leaders of organizations and the staff workers on the front lines of finance, accounting and information systems (at U S WEST Communications for example) trying to make the changes you describe. Now at the end of this decade, I bring much clarity, conviction and considerable humility to the advice that I can offer to you.

What I know for sure is that there are a few essential ingredients in any cultural change effort aimed at shifting the orientation and working patterns of a large staff group. These include:

Sponsorship
The single most important factor in a change effort of this magnitude is a leader with the values, vision, clarity of purpose, tenacity and resources to sponsor the work at all levels of your organization. This CFO/CIO needs to be visibly working on embodying the changes you seek in his or her own less-controlling, more supportive and value-added consulting relationships with executive counterparts. Equally importantly, this leader must be truly open to the inquiry, learning and joint planning steps that are crucial to the start-up of any large-scale, participative change process.

A Commitment to Learning
My own experience in these cross-organizational change efforts tells me that organizations that adopt a learning stance toward the many variables, processes and human dynamics involved in such a change have the greatest chance of success. For example, leaders who sponsor truly collaborative problem solving, open giving and receiving of feedback, group debriefing and the extensive sharing of learnings give their organizations more information and leverage to make cultural shifts. Leaders that simply demand and drive toward cultural change with the same approach that they might bring to a technical, mechanical or quantitative change often defeat themselves in their attempts to forcefully re-mold the minds and hearts of their workers.

A Clear Connection Between This Cultural Change and Specific Business Outcomes
It is essential to establish a clear, strong and logical connection between the changes in attitude, approach and role that you are asking of people and the business results that you are seeking. For example, I assume that you may be asking financial staff members to move beyond number-crunching and budget-policing functions to become real added-value, strategic and tactical contributors to their business unit customers. If so, tie some of the compensation prospects for these staff members to the business results of
these units, measure their contributions as objectively as you can (or as subjectively as you must) - and then pay for what they help to accomplish. This may be radical to consider and challenging to conceive and implement, but I believe that it will be worth it.

An Investment in Staff Members' Development that will Serve Them
At the same time I believe that it is crucial to make a tangible investment in the skills and tools that will help workers be more valuable and marketable as a result of this change effort. For example, staff workers may well need training in communication, certain business processes, teamwork, and consulting skills. In a time when any change in the workplace may put some workers at risk, I think that leaders have to put resources into actively and overtly supporting the development, versatility and marketability of their workers as well as enhancing their company's entrepreneurial capabilities.

A Well-cultivated Partnership
The cultural change efforts with the greatest chance for success have strong, committed partnerships among sponsors, managers, staff workers and change agents (both internal and external). From the conceptual beginning through design, start-up and implementation phases, it is especially important to involve the "natural, informal" leaders of all the constituencies you intend to draw into the change process. Frequently, this means choosing and relying on representative work process/design groups and advisory committees - a series of steps that may add to the timeline of your over-all initiative. However, I have seen several of these stakeholder groups make major contributions to the credibility and long-term success of some difficult cultural shifts.

While these ingredients seem essential to any cultural change effort, I have learned that there are more and more forces at work in today's workplaces that make these changes difficult to guide and predict. These variables often turn what should be straightforward efforts toward improved work processes and outcomes into mazes of complexity. They include:

The frequency and pace of corporate change supervisors and workers frequently tell me that the sheer number and scale of changes in their corporations often leave them confused, exhausted and unable to determine what they should really try to change and what they should merely "go along with" for a while before it is eclipsed by other changes. My suggestion to you is to monitor and carefully manage the number of other changes that the organization requires of your staff as they move into this particular cultural change.

The Uncertainty and Unpredictability of Working Teams and Relationships
It is tough enough to try to shift the culture of an organization such as your utility that has stable and durable reporting relationships and teams. It is tougher still when reporting relationships, teams and matrix accountabilities are shifting once or more every year. Staff members find it difficult to "lean in" to the hard work of changing working relationships and processes when they don't know who their counterparts will be down the road. Whenever and wherever you can commit to some continuity of roles and teams, you will give your staff a better chance of focusing on the mindset and working process changes that you want.

The Challenge of Economic Dislocation
Many companies face a marketplace where dramatic changes can lead to abrupt changes in their immediate direction, strategies and human resource needs. De-regulation, buy-outs/mergers, technological revolutions and entrepreneurial reversals can cause organizations to back away from plans and commitments, no matter how well-intended and seemingly well-timed. As a result, staff workers are now forced to calculate their own positions and sustainability when dislocations loom like storm clouds on their horizons. While there is no way to absolutely protect any people in your organization from these surprises, the best that you can do is to keep all of your staff apprised of what is really on your broader corporate horizon as you head into this cultural change.

These are just a few of the factors that now come in to play when organizations attempt to draw their staff workers into large-scale changes. As you can see, I don't know of any simple answers to these dilemmas. In earlier times only the corporation's executives and strategists had to anticipate and deal with these challenges. Now, virtually all competent managers and staff workers, regardless of their level and job specialization, have to cope with the economy's changing winds and current .

I do know that these internal variables and external developments have to be "on the table," up for discussion and addressed in the regular, wide-spread communications about any cultural change efforts. As companies ask their employees to work smarter, do-more-with-less and contribute to the bottom line, all staff workers deserve and must hear the real information, address the real possibilities and wrestle with the "big picture" variables right along with their corporate leaders. For leaders of many companies, perhaps this kind of meaningful engagement and joint planning with their staff workers will be the biggest cultural change of all. I hope that you and your executives are up to and ready for this stretch.

H. James Harrington Responds

June '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
  • Print this page
  • Save this page

Average Rating

Rating

Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this item

View comments
Add comments
Comments FAQ

ASQ News