Hitting the Culture Change Wall
Culture change is fun! It always starts with lots of exciting meetings, colorful new posters, really cool buttons to wear, and even new screen savers reminding you to “Thrive on!” or “Right First Time Every Time” or “We Break for Breaks” or whatever the code name is for the super important, this-is-the-big-one culture change effort. People get to leave their regular jobs and go to special training. And, there is always the special banquet with its banter, banners, and big deal speeches from the folks at the tippy top of the organization’s food chain.
We have seen major culture change implemented with great success (our bailiwick happens to be creating a customer centric culture). Visit the winning organizations five years into their culture change effort and you would not recognize the place. People have actually embraced new practices, responded to new policies, and demonstrated new enthusiasm for the prescribed new change.
Culture change is not fun! Typically, about one year into most major culture change efforts, the organization hits the proverbial wall. The shiny wears off and the struggle begins. Happy about the merrymaking of change, employees are now faced with the discipline of change. And, discipline for most people, is not the funniest thing in their lives. We all enjoy being physically fit and appropriately thin. But, most people don’t “TV watch” or party their way to health, they rely on the un-fun run on the treadmill and passing up dessert.
Culture change is more of a marathon than a dash. In a marathon race, runners are initially propelled by the thrill of the race, the cheer of the crowd, and the exhilaration of being prepared. But, at about mile twenty, many runners are suddenly dealing with the depletion of carbohydrates and glycogen to a reliance on fatty acids. Easy strides now feel like giant weights have been attached. Many marathon runners simply drop out as the continuous running becomes “just too hard.”
Culture change is just like that. “The Wall” in culture change is discipline. The necessary discipline of change involves solid accountability for new practices, inclusion of those new practices into performance management, and strong leadership dealing with resistance from employees who are more comfortable with the old ways that made them successful. Discipline involves hard choices and tough conversations. It entails compliance and consistency, not just fun and games.
You hear signs of “The Wall” in a culture change effort when normally good employees complain about it being “too hard” or “we are overworked.” The most recognizable sign is leaders pleading to “go slower” or “let’s delay this” or “we have so many other initiatives we are dealing with right now.” The emotional pain of running on sheer adrenalin signals them to “drop back” or “drop out.” Obviously altering the momentum of the change effort risks other initiatives passing it by and consuming attention.
Great marathon runners don’t focus on “slowing down” when they hit the wall; they attack their struggle. When Yogi Berra comically said “Baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical,” he was referring to “the wall.” Charlie Garfield, a sports psychologist and coauthor of the book Peak Performance maintains that 60 to 90 percent of success in sports can be attributed to “mental factors and psychological mastery.” The same is true for culture change. It hangs on leaders with the mental toughness and unflappable passion to stay the course.
Employees read commitment to any change effort by what happens in the middle of the race, not at the beginning. The beginning is always the easy part. When leaders are tested by the culture change race, true believers attack the pain. Few leaders today have extra time on their hands or room on their plates. Leaders show the priority of culture change by what the change effort replaces, not by whether it is added to an already overloaded “to do” list. When leaders stand up and say, “We can do this” or “Get over your whining” they begin to move reluctant performers to the other side of the wall. If culture change were easy, it would have already happened.
An interesting statistic is the difference between the medal winners and the “also ran’s” in the last Olympics. It came down to less than one percent! That is what successful change leaders deliver. When a culture change succeeds, it is due to leaders willing to give the “one percent” more to make it a winner.