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Build a Culture for Continuous Change

Phil Hawkins

So what is the culture of an organization, and where does it exist?

Change is a good thing.

For the purposes of this discussion, the culture of an organization exists in the conversations of its participants.  In other words, what conversations routinely happen and are encouraged versus what conversations are looked on disapprovingly.  In my experience, change is generally regarded as a bad thing both by people and corporations—something is wrong if we need to change.

An executive from a large shipping company once told me that their autopilots spend at least 85% of their time getting the ship back on course.  Maybe organizations are similar. What if we decided that change is not only inevitable, but a good thing, that it shows we are moving with the times?

Different Conversations.

A culture of change permits—requires—different conversations from the ones normally permitted in organizations.  These conversations are defined, or at least flow from, the process diagram and the relationship between customers and suppliers, both internal and external.

Here are some examples of new conversations that may be promoted into the “acceptable” level.  To put it another way, they are conversations that will be included in the culture.  But first we need to get some clarity on terminology. Too often people hide behind jargon, so I propose the following:

“Input requirements” becomes “What I need to do my job”

“Process step” becomes “What I do”

“Process” becomes “what we do”

“Requirements of the process  (or process step)” becomes “what the customer needs”

“Process Owner” becomes “Interface Manager”, the one who ensures communication between departments and divisions

“Customer (internal)” becomes “the person who needs something to do his/her job”

“Supplier (internal) becomes “the person or department that must provide what someone needs to do his/her job”

OK, so some of them don't exactly roll off the tongue, but they are unique and provide clarity. There are others, but using this list we can now have change related conversations in plain English.

Conversations about purpose.

In his book “The Learning Organization”, Peter Senge describes one of the characteristics of a Learning Organization as “much discussion about purpose”.  This is a key ingredient of the new culture.  People can now ask, for example “what is the purpose of what I am doing?” or “what is the purpose of what we are all doing?”

Though this scenario may be horrifying to some managers, I have found that whilst doing their day-to--day work, people do lose sight of their overall goals and need to have them clarified from time to time.  This is normal.  It is also a useful activity for managers as people may require greater clarity on the goals as their work and knowledge progress.

Conversations about “what I need to do my job”. 

In the process model, suppliers are to provide what the customer needs (not an unusual concept).  Therefore, the culture must permit related conversations such as:

“this is what I need to do my job”
“here is feedback on how well you gave me what I needed in the last period”
“here is my new list of what I need (to do my job)”
“I can't give you what you need today, but here's my plan”
“my supplier cannot provide all of my required items, where do I get the others from”

All of these conversations are done in the context of purpose; the purpose of the process and the purpose or objective of the process step being discussed.  This may, in fact, lead to a re-opening of the purpose discussion, this is normal—in fact, it is desirable.

These conversations are a great opportunity for the manager to relate to his or her team, and to imbue more of a sense of ownership of the project in the team members.

That these conversations are alive and well in an organization is essential to the creation of a culture of change management. 

Those managers whose style is reminiscent of a certain shoe company (Just do it!) will not fare well in this endeavour.

A management structure for change.

Current hierarchical management structures frequently prevent this from happening. 

Sometimes what people need lies in another department or even division.  Department heads have their own, usually functional, targets and are often unwilling to incur more work for what appears to them to benefit another department.  Often they are not in a position to see (or to care, because of how they are paid or otherwise rewarded) that for a small increase in their costs, vast savings can be gained by the company.


Currency exchange-280x420As an organization progresses there will be some need for documentation.  I once worked for a company that won the Baldrige Award.  There was documentation such that, if piled up, would reach the 11th floor.  I often wondered who would keep such a pile up to date?

Of course we need documentation, but keep it to only what is useful and can be easily updated.  For these purposes, everyone's description of “what I need to do my job” is top of the list, as are “purpose of what I do”, and “purpose of what we all do”.  This last should be done in detail as there is always a customer for the overall process, and that customer should have a detailed list of what they need.  If this is not available or not adequate then some very worthwhile time should be spent in defining these requirements.

As the culture matures you will see the need for other documentation, especially as more and more processes are linked into the whole.

A document often overlooked

An essential, but often-overlooked, piece of documentation is a well-crafted company “Mission Statement” or “Strategic Intent” statement.

This should be done in such a way that employees can keep a copy pinned to their office wall and refer to it when there is a decision to be taken that must align with company strategy.  It must help everyone identify what they do, and how it aligns with the aims of the company.  If the document does not provide at least these, then it needs more work.

Someone in charge.

As time progresses and the culture takes hold, it will be useful to have a central repository for this information—and someone to see that it is maintained.

Similarly, as process awareness grows and frustration occurs because some of the vital conversations are still not permitted, or difficulties develop due to departmental or divisional boundaries, then an Interface Manager could be appointed.  This person needs to be senior enough to authorize changes and to make cross-boundary agreements.  It is also very useful if he or she has a vested interest in the process being successful.

What factor(s) are critical to success?

The simple answer is management.  This kind of change cannot occur “bottom up”.  Managers and executives are the ones who control the culture of an organization.  They are the ones that control, whether they realize it or not, the conversations that are permitted in an organization.  As mentioned, the “just do it” management style will not cut it.  Managers in this type of climate are more likely to ask, “What do you need?”

People have often said to me, “what if what they say they need is ridiculous, or impossible?”  To paraphrase Albert Einstein, often things look impossible only in the context of how we do things today.  Ultimately, it will depend on the manager and whether they regard the request as “ridiculous” instead of taking it on as an objective to provide people with what they need.

This is how seemingly impossible changes occur.

The goal—companies are a collection of processes, not just functions.

The ultimate goal should be this: right now we use a functional org chart to describe the organization, but as a culture of change develops, we should be able to describe the organization as a set of processes.

Functional management has its advantages—you should probably keep all the programmers or accountants working together, there is synergy to be found.  But we need to recognize that processes are what the company does, not functions.

A routine piece of business requires action from most of the departments in the company, but how many businesses actually manage it as a process, even conceptually?  The cost of the transaction is the cost of the process, but today, costs are usually reported by function.

As managers, we need to create a culture that accepts the fact that what we do—and how we do it—changes all the time. 

Change is a good thing—it makes us better.


If you have not already read our series on managing in a SOR and DRAP environment, you may find these posts relevant:

Strategic and Operating Reviews: We Can't Agree to Disagree
Strategic and Operating Reviews Part 2: Alignment and Failure
Strategic and Operating Reviews Part 3: Change and Failure
Strategic and Operating Reviews Part 4: A Framework for Success
Strategic and Operating Reviews Part 5: Waiting for Your Numbers
Leading Change—Modelling Behaviours Is Crucial for Success
Change Begins with Listening: 5 Things to Work On
$90k-a-day for Consulting? Depends What You Are Buying.

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