I’ve never met a senior leader who didn’t acknowledge the importance of culture. We all agree it is vital. There are numerous examples in multiple domains—not just in business but in war, sports, and social change. It has been demonstrated over and over that culture is a more powerful force-multiplier than money, power, or superior technology.
Superior business culture is the most-often cited factor in business success stories like Google, Southwest Air, and Nordstrom. Toxic or stagnant culture is most-often blamed for the catastrophic downfall of companies like Kodak, Nokia, and Motorola. Jack Welch and Lou Gerstner, who presided over two of the most effective comebacks in corporate history (GE and IBM, respectively), both cited culture as one of their top priorities.
Companies are made out of people, after all, and the most successful companies make people, and culture, a top strategic priority. And yet as leaders we struggle to get a grip on culture. It’s slippery, difficult to name, define, measure or get any kind of traction on.
We are entering a new business era characterized by high levels of volatility, uncertainty, and disruption. There is no organization that is not being affected by these winds of change. Established companies are being disrupted by newcomers with astonishing regularity so common it now has a nameâ€Š—â€Š“Getting Netflixed”â€Š—â€Ša reference to the way Netflix outfoxed and outmaneuvered Blockbuster by redefining and digitizing the customer experience. What Netflix did to video rentals, companies like AirBnB, Uber, Spotify, and Zipcar are doing to hospitality, transportation, music, and car rentals.
When the business environment is evolving this rapidly, culture must keep up.
Culture change is difficult. Changing culture requires changing habits, behaviors, and routines that have solidified over decades. To imagine the scope of a culture change initiative, just imaging 5,000 people trying to quit smoking at the same time. It’s incredibly hard and the risk of failure is high. Even success does not guarantee you will be appreciated. Jack Welch and Lou Gerstner are controversial figures to this day.
Leaders interested in enabling culture change face three problems.
First, getting a grip on the current culture by identifying the direct links between business results, behavior, and organizational enablers like incentives, work systems, and management practices.
Second, imagining and designing the future culture, including not just the desired business results and behaviors, but the incentives, systems, habits, and practices which will enable the new culture to emerge.
Third, the hard work of shifting deeply embedded, entrenched habits and behaviors. For leaders this is especially difficult, because they will necessarily be learning and acting out new behaviors while they are also on display, watched by everyone. Not to mention that culture change, by nature, often occurs in difficult business circumstances, within organizations that will certainly include many critics, cynics, and skeptics.
The first step is to build a solid understanding of the culture you have today. Historically this has been a difficult undertaking, but today it is easier, due to the emergence of business design tools for rapidly diagnosing, describing and designing business strategies and systems.
Leading the charge for business design tools are two of the top 50 business thinkers in the world, Alex Osterwalder of Strategyzer and Yves Pigneur of the University of Lausanne, designers of the Business Model Canvas, which is used by more than 5 million people in organizations around the world.
Alex and Yves helped us develop a new tool for understanding and designing culture, called the Culture Map. The Culture Map links business outcomes and behaviors with the enablers and blockers that are caused or influenced by managers. Culture Mapping is a process that involves deep listening exercises designed to find the real underlying system behind the noise that masks many business realities.
This is a more difficult exercise than the current state diagnostic, because it takes not just the imagination to visualize a future state, but also the humility to be realistic about what can be achieved and how quickly it can happen.
An important part of the design process is visualizing future behaviors in high-granularity detail, to eliminate as much doubt, uncertainty, and skepticism as possible. We recommend that you develop a visual culture map depicting the culture you aspire to, showing people exactly what you want them to do and say in the future you envision. The description should be as clear, specific, and detailed as possible. If new behaviors are not clearly and visually articulated, the most likely outcome is that the old behaviors will simply continue: business as usual but with new names.
True culture change is a difficult endeavor not to be taken lightly. It can take up to three years for a new culture to take root.
We like to compare culture work to gardening. Designing the garden is the easy part. For your culture change efforts to succeed, you will need the patience and dedication of a gardener. Like a garden, a new culture will grow at its pace, not your pace. There is no way to speed up this kind of change.
People must first hear that you are committed to the change. Then, over time, they will closely observe your actions and ongoing behavior, looking for discrepancies and clues. Most people must overcome some cynicism and skepticism before they will believe that the change is real. From that point on, there is still much work to do in order for those changes in belief to become new habits, routines and behaviors.
This article was originally written for Oracle's blog.