Lately, I’ve begun to think about the culture of organizations a little differently than I used to. I once believed a medium or large size organization striving to induce a major shift in the way things are done would have to do a great deal of analytical work, then set up and administer rather large, costly programs. This is, after all, the DNA of the organization we are messing around with, so of course we have to study the molecules in detail, then “objectively” decide what kind of vast shift to the enterprise is called for. I hear this kind of analytical approach to major initiatives these days; for example, with employee engagement programs (or training programs in emotional intelligence, or lean initiatives). They may need a survey and assessment phase, a training phase, an implementation phase, a follow-up and measurement phase. It’s all dependent on expensive consultants and their special knowledge, taxing existing staff to the max, and sometimes paying for other costly infrastructure changes. To say nothing of gaining senior management “buy-in” in the first place.
I’m wondering if there is a simpler, less expensive way.
One question that has repeatedly come forward for me is how much value the big surveys really hold; you know the ones designed to measure employee attitudes across a series of benchmarked measures, with lots of data that gets rolled up into executive reports to highlight seemingly major themes (e.g., “communications”) and target particular work units where morale is especially low. The themes get reduced to generics such as “recognition” or “trust,” qualities that for the most part cannot be programmed into organizations. Recently — even worse — the Gallup organization, one of the biggest vendors of such surveys, is now saying that the really big strategy has to do with hiring the right people as managers in the first place. Well, that’s not much news, and the problem is that it doesn’t do anything for transformation. What’s the option? Fire 70% of the managers out there and start over? I’m only being partially facetious. It seems to me, quite seriously, that the answer is we don’t really have an answer and surveys don’t provide it. There is no expert view that will solve the problems. It seems the answer must come from somewhere else; some other source, closer to home.
The other day I noticed something quite remarkable in a client organization: an executive having a conversation with two middle managers from a different division than his own. The executive had become curious about what it was really like to work in the firm — from a “street-level” view, he said — and the managers had offered informally to fill him in. It wasn’t a big deal, just an open exchange of questions and observations. In the course of an hour the managers identified at least three quite actionable areas. One involved doing something about an abusive high-level professional staff member whose demeaning behavior negatively affected a work unit trying to cope with large changes to their workload and work methods. A second issue involved a peer who was notorious for lacking personal cooperation when asked for help by others from outside his department. A third had to do with a regular, large-group management team meeting that was formal to the point of being intimidating, where people might be grilled for bringing up their unfinished ideas. None of the problems seemed insurmountable. Some intervention was called for in the case of the abusive staff member and the uncooperative peer, and the management team meeting could just as well be fixed with a better structure that incorporated some small group work, a participatory agenda, and a more informal atmosphere.
This conversation could be a catalyst, I thought to myself. Suppose, the executive just worked on one of those problems and it was solved. What would be so hard about that, and what positive impacts would result? Could this single stone thrown in the pond induce something positive and good as a model for a better way of working together? Could it, along with other informal efforts, begin to change the DNA? And wouldn’t that be the purpose of all that big change programs anyway, to get people talking to each other, solving problems — because they wanted to? No big training effort required?
Well, the truth is that the organization in question (perhaps like yours) does suffer from two kinds of challenges.
The first kind has to do with issues — such as the abusive staff member, uncooperative peer, and bad meeting format. But it’s the second challenge that’s truly the problem: the absence of means to informally and openly communicate about the issues as they come up and then collaboratively take action — do something about it. It seems to me this second problem speaks directly to changing the DNA. And it’s not likely to be solved by a survey, even one that calls out all the issues and the past absence of action on them. The DNA only changes when a leader hears and then, without force, coercion, programs, evaluations, external incentives or directives, personally and positively chooses to address what he or she has heard. A survey won’t change a culture, but a single player responding to an informal conversation and operating generatively can perhaps do more to truly open that door. That person can act as a gentle but dynamic force. Just imagine if this kind of culture were already in place — what would that do when it came time to learn more about employee engagement or emotional intelligence or lean? Do you think it might be easier to “implement” — and a whole lot less expensively?
Of course what I’m saying here is that you and I could be exactly the leaders who begin the shift in the DNA through our own informal actions. We don’t have to wait.
A friend of mine refers to this phenomenon as shoveling snow. You can either wait until the snow is five feet high, we’re up to our necks in it and can no longer move, blaming others, or we can notice the snow as it begins to fall in the first place. Then we have a chance to shovel it out of the way together when it is only a couple of inches deep. If more snow falls, we keep shoveling. In effect, we’re always shoveling, but the difference is that while some will be isolated in their houses by five feet of snow, those who shovel together regularly will always have a clear path to and from their doors.
I wish more people in leadership roles understood snow and what to do about it. The executive in this case is beginning to understand it, learn from it, come to grips with it. Good for him. You just have to get to know the other really good people in your organization and ask them about the weather. Since they are out in it every day doing their jobs, they can easily tell you whether the snow is falling and whether, in fact, it is a blizzard — if you catch my drift.
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