Organizations communicate “what the real game is around here” very clearly in certain moments in their lives. Memos and speeches are a good start, but not enough. Employees expect to be given direction or to hear a call to action in speeches and strategy documents. But my experience is that they don’t change their way of operating until those words are backed up by action from the top – in five key areas:
• Staffing: People watch carefully who gets hired and who gets fired – and why. At these times, clear signals are being sent, not only to those directly involved, but to everyone within earshot, about what is acceptable and what is not. The kind of people who get hired communicates where the organization is headed and what it values. Who gets let go, a rare event in public service, sends a very loud message as to what is not acceptable. It may take a while, but the culture is being shaped.
• Planning and budgeting: What gets funded must be a “good” thing; what doesn’t get funded must be a “bad” thing. By simply changing what gets funded or planned for, an entire organization’s culture and direction can change, and quickly.
• Communication (beyond memos and speeches): Every time a manager moves, people are watching and interpreting. Just walking down the hall can communicate more than a manager ever dreamed. Off-hand comments from the top are powerful shapers of the organizational context.
• Responding to bottom-up concerns: People watch carefully to see how managers respond to pain at the bottom. Ignoring them, or responding with cynicism and mistrust, can create a context in which subsequent efforts at creating breakthroughs to address management concerns are going to fail. Management openness and an honest exploration of reported problems says, “it’s okay to try to make things better here.” That’s a breakthrough context.
• Responding to major crisis or conflict: The way a conflict gets handled sends clear signals to the whole system as to how things need to be interpreted. Delayed acknowledgment of the problem, denial, secretive or punitive conflict-resolution actions create a context of mistrust. Employees will similarly hide, deny and fail to resolve problems in a timely way. But when managers show their willingness to be wrong and learn from mistakes and conflict, a breakthrough context is made more likely.
Seeing and seizing these critical moments as opportunities to send a clear signal about the true values and mission of the organization is a crucial leadership skill. Look for them and consider carefully how you respond. People will be watching you. These actions build a base for ongoing improvement, for what is sometimes called “First Order Change,” changing something within the given parameters of the situation, like speeding up a process, introducing a new performance management process, or installing a different IT platform.
But, sometimes, you need major change right now. What can be done in critical moments when things absolutely have to be different? Like using IT to reach out for a mass public sector consultation or to foster collaboration across several governments and departments. Or to introduce a culture of innovation rather than a culture of risk aversion. Not “more of the same only different,” but something entirely different. That’s Second Order Change: change so profound that the old problems are either left behind, or are subsumed into a new way of doing things.
Second Order Change, or Changing the Game, means “going back to zero” and re-thinking the fundamental principals and paradigms on which you are basing your world. When you change the game, these things often shift:
- The strategic intention or the “Big Idea” behind your enterprise
- How people are led and managed toward that vision
- What skills and behaviours are rewarded, or get you sidelined
- How straight (honest) people are when communicating, especially up.
Your organizational culture “trumps” everything
While a training program will likely be an important part of what happens, something larger and more powerful needs to be taken on: your organization’s culture. Why? Because, as the pros in my field like to say, “your culture eats whatever else you are doing for lunch every time.” Or “culture trumps everything.” Your culture is The Game We Play Here, the way we do things around here – and why. And it comes complete with teams, a way of keeping score, winners and losers, rules and regulations, superstars and mediocre players. Everyone knows about it, but because it is like the water a fish swims in, nobody knows what to do about it. It can be changed, however, by following these seven basic principles.
How do you change an organization’s culture?
So, let’s say you have come to the conclusion that it’s time to Change the Game. First, a very senior person, surrounded by a cross-functional “diagonal slice” group of respected managers and front-line people, needs to announce the following:
- “The times they are a changin’…”
- “The Old Game we have been playing is not getting us there like it used to and here are some examples from around the system.”
- “We are therefore – together – going to create a New Game that works better for everyone, including our (employees, clients, constituents).”
Second, you need to understand that your organization is perfectly designed to get the exact results you are getting now. This means that your existing way of doing things – and why – is being “taught” and modeled and rewarded and supported by your culture right now. So the first order of business is to identify what is working and not working in The Old Game. Make sure to find where The Old Game is working and raise those examples up. Ask everyone in the system (using surveys and/or face-to-face contact) these three questions:
- What do we need to hold on to (from The Old Game)?
- What do we realize we need to let go of (from The Old Game)?
- What do we need to learn or develop as we make this shift?
Third, working with that same cross-functional group, collate all you have heard and report back to the people, along with a short list of the most important responses to those three questions. Then form Action Teams (not committees) to come up with recommendations for decision-makers on each of the most important items.
Fourth, make sure The New Game is being modeled by movers and shakers throughout the system. People “look up” in an organization to see what The Real Game is, and if executives are not walking the new way of doing things, just pack your bags now and head home. (The best training and amazing reward system can’t overcome “backwards” modeling of top leadership.) This will probably take intensive training for individual leaders and their teams, powerful modeling by the very top person, exhortation, coaching, and even respectfully letting a few people go