When it comes to changing culture, think small

Effective leaders know that long-term company success requires a strong organizational culture that aligns with the company’s purpose and strategy. Like Lou Gerstner Written, describing the shift he organized at IBM in the 1990s, “I’ve seen, during my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it’s the game.” However, corporate transformations, mergers and acquisitions, and other large-scale initiatives still often happen to lose momentum after hitting cultural barriers. Bring what?

This is the question that Roger Martin, executive advisor and emeritus professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School, has pondered for 30 years. In his latest book, A New Way to Think: Your Guide to Improving Management Effectivenessa summary of his writings for Harvard Business Reviewhe found that leaders often approach culture change in one of two indirect ways.

Usually, Martin told me in an interview, they try to change the culture by decree. “They say things like, ‘I’m the CEO, and this is a very bureaucratic organization. Everything takes too long. This is going to be a non-artistic company because I say so. ‘”

Another commonly used approach, Martin explains, relies on structural changes. “The CEO said, ‘This place is very bureaucratic because the finance department is so authoritarian. So the CFO will now report to the COO, and the COO is supposed to keep the finance out of things it shouldn’t get involved with. ‘”

Unfortunately, no single approach is powerful enough to successfully change organizational culture on its own. “They don’t work, because they don’t change the interpretations and norms shared within an organization,” says Martin. “The truth about culture is that the only way you can change it is to change the way individuals work together. If you can change that, then you will see the culture has changed.”

To change the way people work together, Martin argues, leaders must model the behaviors they want to see. “Literally the only way I’ve seen culture change in the 42 years since I graduated from business school is when a leader sets out to exhibit a different kind of behavior and make it work. motion. Others took their cues from that behavior, and, gradually but surely, the culture changed,” he said. powerful period. People watch leadership and do what leaders do.”

One notable aspect of this approach is that it does not require a large initiative or investment. Instead, cultural change depends on microinterventions: small adjustments to the structure, dynamics, or framework of interpersonal interactions, applied consistently over time.

Cultural change depends on micro-interventions—small adjustments to the structure, dynamics, or framework of interpersonal interactions, applied consistently over time.

Martin helped orchestrate this type of change while working with AG Lafley when he was CEO of Procter & Gamble. Lafley wanted to improve the consumer giant’s overly bureaucratic strategic process. To do so, they made just one small change to the strategy review process: instead of allowing business unit executives to present thought-provoking slides during the annual strategy meeting. — and thus getting bogged down in unnecessary detail — they required the submission of slide sets a week before the meeting. They then inform the executives of three (or fewer) topics to be discussed at the meeting, stipulating that no further presentation is made. The small tweak has resulted in more focused conversation and more attention to what ultimately matters to the business. Martin wrote: “Everybody tried their best to get in our way. “It took about four years for the business units to fully adjust to the idea that what AG really wanted was simply to have a rich strategic discussion that explored ideas — new ways to competition, new growth paths, underlying threats — and to ensure that the best minds in the company get together to chat instead of entering the corporate theater. “

Four years shows that cultural change is a long game. “It’s not an on-off switch,” says Martin. “It’s a movement that starts the minute behavior starts to change, but not everyone can see it and people don’t necessarily spread it quickly. It’s like throwing pebbles into a pond to build and sustain waves. It took them a while to reach the pond.”

When Martin was appointed president of the Rotman School, he used micro-interventions to change a toxic culture in which faculty and students were at odds with administrators. . “I did not make a bold statement about a new culture; in fact, I’m not talking about culture at all,” he wrote. “Instead, I focus relentlessly on changing the mechanism of leadership between individuals — for example, how I handle faculty evaluation discussions, faculty conflicts, and meetings with faculty. my key employees who worked with external stakeholders.”

In each area, Martin made small changes. For example, during the faculty evaluation, he added a one-hour personal meeting with each professor in which he asked to evaluate the professor’s goals for the previous and next year, and What the school can do to achieve that goal. The meeting was instrumental in changing the nature of the review process, he said, shifting the focus from passing a ruling to a collaborative partnership.

Finally, Martin’s most striking piece of advice for leaders is to approach the culture of change one at a time. “Don’t underestimate the power of retail,” he advises. “When leaders announce a new culture or establish a new organizational structure, they are trying to wholesale the culture by implementing change all at once. But for me, it’s retail. Every interaction you have is an opportunity to move the culture in the right direction. “

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