CHANGE YOUR CORPORATE CULTURE TO ENABLE CHANGE?
“Innovate or die” is not news. But, innovation requires
companies to change, and unfortunately, most can not do much more than fine
tune their past. At companies where too many top-down change initiatives have fizzled,
employees can even become cynical about new change efforts and ignore them. If
our company is struggling to escape its past ways in a changing world, what then
is our credible, going-forward, “growth story” (vision) that we need to attract
and keep better than average employees who will, in turn, help make those changes
How do we change how we have been trying to change? Here’s
a theory: besides top-down vision and will to change, what if we have to
also have a “corporate culture” that “enables” change to happen? Will our
corporate culture allow the management team, for example, to even think about
how we think about change? How could we test this corporate culture hypothesis
quickly and cheaply?
The “fail forward faster” guideline suggests that we
should try some necessarily imperfect experiments to learn as much as we can in
the shortest time for the lowest total cost. Because thought experiments are
especially fast and cheap, what if we: 1) wrote down a lot of questions that we
2) deliberately choose to live with instead of offering instant,
action-oriented answers or universal stops like “we tried that already”; or,
“we are already doing that”. These two steps would be true experiments for most
Below are some questions to seed the effort, perhaps they
will trigger more related questions which together will create a “question map”
about this tweak-our-culture theory.
What are the specific, corporate antibodies that have
killed past change initiatives?
What if we could: name those specific, anti-change rules
and behaviors; explore the unspoken, dysfunctional assumptions (and motives) behind
them; and then, re-engineer them to create a climate that enables innovation
When was the last time we did a quick, informal “corporate
culture audit” that surveyed a cross-section of employees with a promise of
anonymity to find out how things really “get done or not done around here”?
To expand on the last point above, why, when, and how might
we take a next step and use an hour or two of an outsider’s help (remember
don’t spend a lot; test cheaply) just in case we might have some management, groupthink,
blind spots or dated clutter. Most gardens need to be weeded, and most plants
in the garden need to be pruned to grow better. Why should all of the ideas
that make up our corporate culture be any different?
With a promise of anonymous cover, an outsider should also
be able to coax some extra information out of the bottom 80% of the payroll concerning
what really happens in the minds and hearts of the front-liners when change
edicts are handed down. And, best of all, if the outsider should deliver honest
feedback that is critical about how top management is a big part of the
problem, we can fire them at a small investment loss and choose to accept only
the amount of reality we can handle. (Question: Do ego needs, denial and even
moderate delusions come in all degrees from the individual level to the
collective team level? True or false?)
For more food for thought on the topic of “corporate
culture audit”, check out these sources on the net:
Go to www.wikipedia.org
and read the entries on “corporate culture” and “memes” (rhymes
Google “how to do a corporate culture audit” and do
some cheap, fast reading.
Check out this URL for ideas on “innovation memes”:
Do some quick survey work of employees without an
outside expert (even cheaper and faster). Brainstorm about what would be some
good questions to put on surveys for managers, sales reps, operation people,
If these questions about corporate culture are unsettling,
don’t worry. Less than 4% of all mature companies are able to continuously
innovate. Most companies have over-invested in being too:
Efficient instead of effective;
Short-term #s oriented instead of steady, long-term
investors in continuous innovation;
Highly consistent and stable in how they operate
(which is efficient) without trying enough new stuff that is inherently disruptive,
messy at first, and could involve extra expense and stress.
Tightly run in a hierarchal manner that actually suits
most people who would rather not be individually
responsible for continuously learning and failing forward at either home or on
the job. Ambitious, innovative, self-starting
individuals don’t work (for long), however, at stable, growing-nowhere companies.
On the other hand, most, non-starter-type people are not
happy being crank-turners in a slowly dying company. Most would prefer a
creative balance of stability with something new that has upside for them and
all stakeholders, but they both need and appreciate some social and
institutional support to help them be the person they want to be. How do we re-engineer
some of our corporate culture memes to reduce the memes that hinder learning,
change and growth and add ones that will enable all of the things that go into
© Merrifield Consulting Group, Inc.
D. Bruce Merrifield, Jr.