Tag Archives: organizational culture

Tell Me a Story

By Laurie Breitner

As the mother of three and grandmother of four, I have told a lot of stories. The ones the little ones like best incorporate something from their lives in the narrative. Of course, this isn’t surprising. The role of storytelling — in oral history, moral teaching, and religion to name a few — has been critical over time and across cultures; it’s a time-tested way to bring people together, acknowledge challenges, and celebrate significant milestones. Through stories families and communities teach cultural values and other important lessons. So it should come as no surprise when a company eager to shape a strong, positive culture turns to storytelling as an important part of that effort.

By Ethel Franklin Betts (1877–1959) - The Orphant Annie Book, by James Whitcomb Riley, Indianapolis: Bobbs‐Merrill Co., 1908. Downloaded from the Internet Archive. http://www.archive.org/stream/orphananniebook00rile#page/n7/mode/2up, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46668567

By Ethel Franklin Betts (1877–1959) – The Orphant Annie Book, by James Whitcomb Riley, Indianapolis: Bobbs‐Merrill Co., 1908. Downloaded from the Internet Archive. http://www.archive.org/stream/orphananniebook00rile#page/n7/mode/2up, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46668567

If you are interested in re-shaping your company culture, learn more from this interview with Carmine Gallo, author of the new book, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t.

For more on how to use your company’s stories in the context of assessing your organization’s culture, read Karen’s earlier post “Get a Fresh Perspective on Your Organization’s Culture: A (Mostly) Do-It-Yourself Approach.”

© Copyright Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

What Do G.M. and the V.A. Have to Do with Your Organization?

By Karen Utgoff

Public domain

Public domain

I have been keeping my eye on the disturbing news about General Motors and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Recent reports describe deep dysfunction that appears to have resulted from failing to both acknowledge and then address systemic problems — some of life-and-death significance. While both organizations are huge and complex with many layers of bureaucracy, leaders of smaller, simpler businesses or nonprofits should not assume such problems are entirely a result of size and scope. Here are some thoughts on spotting and preventing such situations in your own business:

Recognize that no one is immune. Individual weaknesses differ but we all have them. Understanding your individual (and team) susceptibilities can help you to nip a potentially alarming systemic problem in the bud rather than assuming it away as an aberration.

Watch for symptoms of trouble brewing. Most business problems are made worse by ignoring them. Be alert to early warning signs of problems in general. This will help you prevent difficulties of titanic proportions as well as smaller ones that can interfere with routine operations and performance.

Create a quality-focused, high integrity-based culture. A culture that values honesty and questioning assures employees that they will be listened to — and not punished — for calling management’s attention to potentially significant problems. A culture of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” is dangerously disrespectful of your employees and their moral compasses. If you are not sure how to characterize your culture, here is one approach you can use to get a fresh perspective on it.

Manage by walking around. The leader who regularly walks among, talks with, and listens to employees throughout the organization is more likely to learn about problems individuals on the frontlines are seeing. Don’t stop there. Follow up on the information, demonstrate that you want to know about and will act to solve problems. Then, communicate with employees about what you’re doing and why; consider publicly thanking the individual(s) who brought the issue to your attention.

Encourage individuals to do the right thing. Do job descriptions, financial incentives, and other recognition motivate employees to bring such issues into the light of day or to sweep them under the rug?

Lead by example. None of the above will make a difference if your actions don’t match your words. This is as true day-to-day as it is when a crisis hits. If your employees see you cutting corners with products or product safety, they will get the message that they can — and perhaps should — do the same.

Start now. If you are concerned that significant problems are being overlooked, start to address them now. Ask questions and show that you would rather have accurate but unsettling answers than false comfort. It will take time and effort to overcome the status quo but keep at it.

Learn from the mistakes of others. To start, check out “Top Investigator Has Blistering Criticism for V.A. Response to Whistle-Blowers” (NYTimes, June 23, 2104) and “GM Recalls: How General Motors Silenced a Whistle-Blower” (BusinessWeek, June 18, 2014). Two key takeaways:

  • Problems take time to develop. In both cases, there were multiple warning signs over many years with many missed opportunities along the way.
  • People were trying to do the right thing but couldn’t.

 

If you do all of the above will you be immune from the sorts of crises that G.M. and the V.A. are now experiencing? No (remember item one), but you will be more likely to catch and fix significant problems with a minimum of injury and expense.

 

© Copyright 2014 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Five Steps to Inspire Business Change and Growth

By Laurie Breitner

Perhaps you’ve had this thought: If only we could work more effectively as a team, respond well to last minute orders or implement a new computer system. Most employers know what they’d like to change about their businesses, but many aren’t sure what steps to take to make it happen. Whether you want to shape a more effective organization or significantly expand your business, here are tips on what you can do to refocus your organization and change its cultural habits.

Establish a climate for change. People often resist change; change is facilitated when the status quo becomes uncomfortable. What can you do to encourage transformation? This may seem odd, but you need to let your organization — including yourself — feel pain. Openly discuss dissatisfaction with those things you’d like to be different.

Inspire your organization to take action. Create a compelling vision of how things could be better. Meet with everyone whose help you’ll need to be successful — your employees, suppliers, vendors, advisers and even selected customers — to talk about your plans. Encourage frank discussion of their perception of your organization’s relative strengths and weaknesses. You may learn about hidden problems and avoid potential pitfalls that could derail your plans. Don’t overlook your banker, business and legal advisers and accountant; getting them onboard early may smooth the way when inevitable stumbling blocks arise and you need their help.

Build a strong alliance of people committed to your goals.The role of this alliance of internal and external resources is to help reinforce your vision of the future, eliminate obstacles, generate short-term successes and change habits in your company culture. Find individuals whose opinions are respected, who agree on your vision and are committed to the process for “the duration.” With their assistance, develop realistic, measurable plans. Encourage quick successes; early achievements help to get doubters behind your program. After all, everyone likes to play on a winning team. Identify important milestones and the dates by which you expect to achieve them. Evaluate progress at regular intervals and make mid-course corrections.

Align your organization for success. Ironically, complex changes can be easier to accomplish than small, incremental shifts. In making systemic change, organizations are forced to confront the larger issues of culture and management style that exist in every organization — systems that make incremental change difficult to accomplish. Here are examples of things to consider:

  • Compensation policies
  • Leadership styles
  • Job descriptions
  • Technology and infrastructure
  • Policies and procedures

Look at all the different ways that current cultural habits are reinforced and revamp those systems that encourage people to resist change.

People don’t oppose their own ideas. People who are involved in deciding what and how things will change are more likely to support the effort; in fact, they themselves can be won over simply through their participation! People who don’t get a voice in what happens tend to resist change. To avoid this problem, involve as many people as possible in building consensus about the need for change and in deciding how to make it. This is an important step in building employee engagement.

Communicate. You cannot do too much to get your message across. Here are hints for successful communication:

  • Keep it simple; make sure that messages are clear and easy to understand.
  • Use metaphors, analogies and stories.
  • Send your message in different ways, e.g., e-mail, newsletters, memo, paycheck stuffers, etc.

Be sincere in your commitment. Walk your talk. Lead by example. Act as you want others to act. Make sure that everyone in your organization is “in the loop.” People who aren’t included may actively resist. Laying out your vision for how the business could improve gives everyone a framework to make good long-term decisions and set priorities…and maximizes your chance for success.

© Copyright 2014 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

Get a Fresh Perspective on Your Organization’s Culture: A (Mostly) Do-It-Yourself Approach

By Karen Utgoff

When was the last time you took a systematic look at your organization’s culture? Many owners and leaders of small-to-medium sized businesses could answer this question with one word: “Never.” Unfortunately, culture is often neglected when leaders size up their organizations even when its importance is recognized because it is difficult to measure:

  • Unlike cash flow, leads generated, cost of goods sold, defect rates, absenteeism, or other company/industry empirical measures, culture cannot be assessed strictly in terms of numbers.
  • Culture — good or bad — is so much a part of an organization’s day-to-day “normal” it can be difficult just to recognize its influences, much as individuals may be blind to their own good or bad behavior patterns.
  • Culture is very much in the eyes of its many beholders — employees, customers, suppliers, as well as the management team. Although it may be uncomfortable, it is important to consider each for their perspectives and bring the necessary objectivity to the process.
  • Convincing yourself (and staff) of its importance to find the time to do this type of assessment can be very difficult in the midst of day-to-day demands.

Nevertheless taking a fresh look at your organization’s culture is critical; while the work is difficult, the payoff could be substantial. In many ways, an organization’s culture is at the core of its ability to respond effectively to immediate difficulties as well as meet long-term challenges and seize opportunities. Culture significantly influences an organization’s ability to attract and retain employees and, of course, its customer experience.

Don’t let the desire for perfection derail getting started. Taking initial steps will allow you to build a foundation for future improvements. Here is an approach that might help you begin.

Use a general framework as a starting point. While it is tempting to start by framing your assessment around the particulars of your organization, this could introduce assumptions about your culture that skew results or interfere with insights. Instead, start with a one-size-fits-all structure to assure a fresh perspective that will help you develop an objective, inclusive view of your culture.

While there are many frameworks out there, I like the one provided in John Coleman’s “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture” from the HBR Blog Network. This article breaks culture into more manageable pieces:

  • Vision (and/or mission)
  • Values
  • Practices
  • People
  • Narrative*
  • Place*

It’s worth noting that these are components of both great and problematic cultures; the difference being that in great cultures the elements work together to create a highly productive, effective organization.

Go beyond your talk to get at your walk. Because culture depends much more upon what an organization does than what it says, look for evidence of culture in action. Use facts to support your observations or help you to see more clearly.

Use the framework to describe your organization’s culture from your (the CEO/owner’s) perspective. Record your view of each aspect of your organization’s culture. Limit yourself to a single page that succinctly covers the six components rather than a detailed description. Once this summary is complete, if you feel the need for more information add backup pages to support the summary page. For example in the section on Narrative you may want to mention the story about when you and everyone else worked late into the night to help a customer in a crisis. This could be listed as “How we went above and beyond for XYZ Co. when they needed our help,” while backup information could include highlights of your team’s efforts and XYZ’s thank you letter.

Use the framework to see your organization’s culture from many perspectives. Eventually you may want use the template to gather the perspectives of employees, customers and others who have experience with your organization. To get started, focus on employees from the front lines to the management team. Provide a copy of the template and Coleman’s blog.  Ask each one to describe your organization’s culture as he or she sees it. Encourage backup notes to support observations on the main sheet. Anonymous returns encourage frankness, but you will not be able to follow up for more detail. Often a third party is engaged to gather and consolidate returns to help overcome this barrier.

Compare and consolidate perspectives to see with fresh eyes. As you accumulate perspectives from various individuals throughout your organization and beyond, look for points of agreement and divergence. Be mentally prepared for both delightful and disappointing discoveries. For example, you may find that employees are quietly taking the initiative to realize the mission through their day-to-day actions, or that employees are only partially aware of the organization’s values. You may also find that there are some positive aspects of your culture that you, as the leader, rarely or never see but want to encourage. In any case, your mandate is to see your culture through fresh eyes rather than to act immediately on the details.

Once you have a deeper understanding of your culture, it will become easier to find ways to strengthen and nurture its positive aspects. For example, if employees are unaware of the organization’s values, you may realize that a values statement needs to be distributed to everyone, that values need to be integrated into performance evaluations, or that you will seek opportunities to create new narratives by recognizing employees whose actions exemplify organizational values.

Improve your ability to analyze and assess organizational culture by observing others. The steps above are just a starting point. One of the joys of my work is that I am regularly exposed to a wide range of organizations. In some it’s clear that talk and walk have diverged, while in others employees are remarkably in sync. There is a lot to learn from both. To strengthen your ability to nurture the culture in your organization, try applying the framework to others. Does your supplier tell you that its people are innovative problem solvers but your experiences say otherwise?

Include organizational culture as a regular part of management review. Remember that the steps above are a beginning not the end. Along with your margins, customer-base and employees’ technical capabilities, a healthy organizational culture is an important part of your business’ strength. In addition to its internal value, it plays directly into your reputation, brand, and competitiveness. To create, nurture and sustain culture effectively, make time to assess it systematically as part of routine, ongoing management and leadership efforts.

* For more on Narrative and Place, see my post on “Using narrative and place to nurture small business culture” in Succeeding in Small Business.

© Copyright 2014 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.