Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Caught, Taught, Mandate or Free-will?

The challenge of culture change and how to bring it about is a topic most CEO’s and GM’s will have to grapple with at some point in their career, if not for all of it. These days, your ability to change an organisations culture is a factor in rising through the ranks of ‘C’ level and GM roles.
It is no surprise that there are therefore many perspectives on the topic of culture change. One of the common ones is whether culture is caught or taught and another is whether you should mandate culture across the business or allow each division, department, team and individual to choose their culture. In this two part blog we will look at both of those perspectives, starting with caught versus taught.

Caught Versus Taught
Ultimately culture is caught. New employees are told ‘how things are around here’ by their colleagues and their team-leaders. But we are talking about culture change. If you are looking to change your culture it means that there is something unwanted about the current culture and
that's the culture people are catching.
In culture change there is a phase where both cultures exist. One will be in reality and the other will be a concept. As a leader your job is to guide people to the culture you are looking for. Yes you can be an icon of the new culture and hope that people will catch it, but if you are in an organisation of hundreds or more you will find that a difficult prospect.
Some CEO’s subscribe to the ‘Build and they shall come’ approach to culture. This approach assumes that if the vision is so compelling and the values so motivating that people will adopt them. The problem with this view is that your existing culture has a life of its own and like all life-forms it
doesn't want to die. It also exists in habits people don’t know they have, expectations that leaders won’t even realise are counter-cultural until they have to explore them, and practices and policies that have been around so long that they aren't in the manual any more.
I call this the culture buffer. Unless you are building a culture for a new business start-up you will be facing this, and the older and more established the business the tougher the buffer is.
So do I say taught over caught for culture change? Well it depends on what you mean by taught. I have seen programmes that seem more like indoctrination because the delivery has gone so far as to define the 24 expected behaviours and 32 competencies that every role is expected to adhere to in order to live the culture. This approach makes it impossible to be the unique person that your were actually employed to be so it is soon ignored as it just too hard.

In my view the amount of catching and the amount of teaching is a balancing act that depends on your existing culture (how entrenched it is, how far removed from the culture you need etc), the degree of change that is required to make it happen and then the stage that you are going through e.g. you will do more teaching in the early stages of rolling out a culture, but less when it is clear that influential people have caught the virus and are out there passing it round.
The teaching should be done in a way that allows people to align the best of themselves, guides them when choices are to be made and encourages them to strive on your behalf. Involvement is everything in the teaching phase. One session on one day will not be enough. You need multiple involvement activities, strong communication channels, managers that change processes to align them to the culture (so that culture truly becomes ‘how we do things around here’) and leaders that live it, integrate it in to every vision, business plan and strategic objective.
Teach it, involve in it, align to it and then you can rely on it being caught.