Why Culture Changes Occur and How to Manage Them
Guest Q&A with Todd Hoskins, Founder of Canopy Gap
What are the most common reasons that you see companies pursuing a company culture change management strategy?
Many organizations view “culture” as a problem that needs to be solved, typically after an increase in employee turnover, declining performance, or some disruption such as a merger or acquisition. By the time culture is raised as an issue, there is usually already a lack of energy, focus, and dedication.
In many cases, the core issue of trust has been compromised along the way. When trust is broken or not considered essential, the blame is often projected onto leadership, organizational structures, the “market,” or one or more departments. It’s not viewed as a systemic issue which it nearly always is.
A deficiency in trust leads to a culture of fear and self-protection. That’s when we get “office politics,” “power games,” and people “checking out,” or moving in divergent directions, some of them out the door.
At this point, organizations often seek help through consultants, experts, and programs. Often they have already tried to form a committee or “task force,” do some “team building,” or have increased pay or benefits without the desired results. At that point, most don’t know what to do.
We are also seeing more and more organizations starting to be aspirational, recognizing that culture itself is a pathway to exponential value creation. People read about, or have an experience with, Southwest, Zappos, Wegmans, Trader Joe’s, or other great cultures and want to know how they can do it. The numbers are rather consistent – dynamic cultures create dynamic results.
What are the hardest aspects of facilitating these change management initiatives?
It’s not easy! To truly shift a culture, there is no step-by-step solution. You cannot merely approach it strategically through research, analysis, plans, and policies, and this is what organizations are accustomed to. There is no blueprint. This is really hard because companies in transition or pain want the answer quickly. The possibilities emerge as the relationships strengthen, and that takes time. The solution ends up being many solutions that are unique to the organization and time.
A very helpful metaphor is thinking of organizations as living systems. The prevailing view is that an organization is like a machine, not a living system. With machines, you can repair the system with new parts (people), lubricants (policies), or software (strategy), and the machine may work more effectively. With living systems, you need a whole new set of perspectives and skills because every participant in the system is dynamic, impacting every other participant, creating incredible amounts of complexity.
Energized organizations are full of people who are fully free to be themselves serving something greater than themselves. This requires both solidity and fluidity. When this happens, when individual gifts and talents start to coalesce in the direction of an evolving vision, momentum grows, leading to creativity, courage, and ultimately well-being and profits.
Organizations are more comfortable with solidity, and less with fluidity. Fluidity requires a certain amount of uncertainty, risk, and letting be, and most organizations are fundamentally risk-averse and seek control.
Why do companies often need help in managing culture change?
We are just now beginning to understand the importance of complexity in physics, biology, ecology, and economics. Business, unfortunately, has insisted it can operate in a world that is primarily cause and effect, and we are experiencing the results of this. Complexity requires a different way of thinking, planning, and problem-solving.
If you view an organization’s culture as the energy – the tone – of every interaction internally and with customers and others, how do you possibly shift thousands or millions of interactions?
It is possible, but it requires a shift that leads to a shift that leads to a shift. Eventually this can have an exponential effect. For organizations that want an out-of-the-box solution or quick fix, this is hard to comprehend.
When an organization is ready to shift, they benefit from having consultants come in for a couple reasons. First, it requires a unique skill set. The best consultants for this work, in our view, are skilled facilitators. They are great listeners who understand how to call forth the wisdom that is already in the organization. They understand awareness, emotional intelligence, group dynamics, facilitation, and dialogue. Part of our work is actually helping develop this skill set with our clients.
Second, there is a great benefit of bringing in a team of accomplished facilitators who know how to keep one foot in the organization and one foot outside the organization. This allows the consultants to see the system from both the inside and the outside. It’s hard to understand the system unless you’re in it. It’s hard to see the system if you’re all the way in.
How do you see the role of new technology in helping drive culture change?
We work with our clients in cycles of awareness, convergence, and action. Technology is increasingly providing more insights into this awareness component, helping answer the very important question, “What is really happening here?”
Think of it this way…the human body is equipped with a nervous system that delivers immediate data on what could be potentially harmful or beneficial to us. Our senses, and even our emotions, provide signals as to what we need to pay attention to. We can “sense” potential danger or pleasure.
Organizations have largely been functioning without a nervous system. They have relied on periodic reports and analyses that pretend the future will mirror the past. Annual surveys, for example, just like market research, provide us with aged data outside of context. It’s useful to a degree, but more valuable within a machine metaphor and less in a living system.
With more continuous feedback and tools like Pomello, we’re just beginning to see the shift from big data to personal data – meaningful data that taps into what people across an organization are sensing and feeling now. This will have a huge business impact as the nervous system starts to form at scale. Then organizations will have a multi-dimensional, real-time view on what is really happening at the sensory level, allowing them to be much more responsive and adaptive.
What are the three best practices you would highlight to manage change successfully?
The Art of Dialogue
Every organization would benefit from a deep understanding of how generative dialogue works. It’s not a debate. It’s not an information exchange. Real dialogue is a pathway to better relationships, engagement, and creativity. It’s a foundation for shifting.
Invitation not Coercion
We hear the stories about the failures of “top-down” change initiatives. What gets lost in that narrative is that people don’t like being told they need to change, period. If more organizations could learn the art of invitation, many more shifts would happen. “Would you be able to . . .” is almost always better than “You must . . .” For this reason, it always works better to start an initiative with the willing and resist the big rollouts and announcements. Each time you’re coercive it’s like poking a pinhole in a rowboat. Eventually you’re going to sink.
Resonance more than Alignment
Alignment usually means, “We all agree to agree.” Alignment is a word about precision – “in a line” or “falling into line.” When the focus is getting people lined up, coercion starts to occur, people become silent, we often fail to hear the important voices of dissent, and the energy diminishes. Seeking resonance is less clear and more messy, but calls forth people’s sensory awareness. It shifts the conversation.
What types of initiatives have you worked on? How did you measure success?
Culture shifts require a starting point. Our practice focuses on leadership, sales & marketing, collaboration, employee engagement, or innovation. We also have a customer success practice that brings customers or partners into the shift.
We recently completed a four-year collaboration shift with a 10,000 employee organization that included technology adoption, org design, and training components. Right now we’re working on a sales & marketing shift, a customer success shift, and another collaboration shift.
Measuring shifts is difficult because you need to both take the long view and know that you’re heading in a good direction. For the long view, we want to know “What are we ultimately trying to impact?”. A collaboration shift, for example, is not just about getting more people talking. It is tempting to measure users and conversations, but what if there are actually no fruitful conversations taking place?
For us, the long-term impact measures are often connected to new – revenue, products, services, initiatives — or well-being – happiness, health, etc.
We also want to be able to measure the harbingers that will lead to the long-term impact like trust, care, and engagement. This is where we’re excited to be working with Pomello.
Canopy Gap helps organizations transition into new ways of working together through experiencing a shift in relationship and perspective. The process of shifting occurs through facilitating conversations among and between teams (even including customers), through working through projects together that are representational or integral to the shift (prototyping), and through one-on-one discovery sessions with individuals. These vital conversations lead to more energy, creativity, engagement, and impact.
This post was written for Pomello by Todd Hoskins, the founder of Canopy Gap, a company that helps organizations create space for vital growth through culture shifts. Canopy Gap clients accelerate their ability to work courageously together with care and trust.
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