Your company has had some bad press lately. The CEO’s been called to a congressional hearing. Perhaps a recall or disappointing results led to a drop in stock price. Or maybe a respected leader (and many others) left the company. Or a bad leader stayed too long. Whatever the reason, your employees aren’t happy. Many organizations just buckle down and hope it passes. Sometimes they try and address the cause, but fail to do much else. Results are hit or miss. Others don’t know what to do.
When this happens, the company should care enough to take intentional, strategic action because here’s what’s really going on: for starters, that thing and the employees’ feelings about it are occupying mental space. It’s distracting from their focus on work, impacting productivity, straining relationships, and ultimately hurting business results. By now, you’ve also got a lot of negative mojo out there and it’s spreading through news, rumor, and gossip. That continually depletes the emotional bank accounts Stephen Covey wrote about in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Tapping people’s reserves means they are losing their resilience—that is, their ability to bounce back and recover quickly. Even worse, for some people (and depending on the severity of the situation), the company has broken a psychological contract. The “this isn’t what I signed up for” violated your employees’ expectations of their job and that needs to be renewed or renegotiated. With no improvement in sight, they will otherwise get frustrated and leave.
Simply addressing the cause of the strife is not enough because of these reverberating effects. You can’t wait, and it won’t pass. The longer-term consequence of this climate will influence people’s behaviors. Patterns of behaviors and their associated interactions will impact culture overall. Before you know it, the company evolves to an undesirable version of itself.
You can do something about it. Design of Work Experience (DOWE)“partners employees with their employers to co-create customized and meaningful work experiences that set the conditions for people and business to thrive.” As a methodology to create, affect, and sustain culture, DOWE:
The running theme throughout DOWE is engagement. Especially in difficult times, a company must involve their employees more deeply and work to bring the company even closer. Building walls, practicing avoidance, or denying the reality of the situation only serves to worsen the damage done. With DOWE, you are course-correcting and creating circumstances for different outcomes in the future. This gives life to people, not drains it.
Look for the upcoming book, Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work.
I’ve been beating the drum about the role of culture in mergers and acquisitions since graduate school, when I worked on a deep dive into the 2001 HP-Compaq deal and saw just how “largely incompatible” (my words) the two cultures were. Even then, 18 months after the closing, the culture clash was evident. All employees felt the impact regardless of their legacy employer. Three years later, the headline was, “Why Carly Fiorina’s Big Bet is Failing.” In 2016, it was “Worst Tech Mergers and Acquisitions: HP and Compaq.” One could argue some sort of vendetta keeps bringing this particular deal back into the dialogue. Another explanation is that the effect has been long lasting and there’s a lesson to be learned here. This particular merger failed for a number of reasons, but low and behold culture has been named as one of them (see examples here and here). This merger is one of many who experienced the culture clash. I would even go so far as to argue that all mergers go through it because every organization has its own unique people, context, and culture regardless of all the “synergies” between two parties. Bringing them together will never be a seamless fit, but intentionally managing it will make a difference. Here are a few things to consider when it comes to M&A and culture, and how Design of Work Experience (DOWE) can help you navigate through it all.
Make culture a part of due diligence. If every organization is different and a culture clash between two entities merging into one is inevitable, then doing this should be a given. Evaluating culture is just as important as looking through the books, IP, assets, business operations, etc. as part of due diligence. For each organization, determine where and to what degree these differences exist through DOWE’s Culture Study before the decision to merge or acquire. Are there cultural strengths to leverage on both sides? Does the buyer actually want to acquire the culture for sale? Are there red flags that could signal a deal breaker? This helps the two sides to go into their new world with eyes wide open.
Forge a new shared vision and culture. During the highest peaks of M&A activity, the focus isn’t typically on the aftermath—it’s all about getting the deal done from a legal and regulatory standpoint. This myopic view leaves organizations ill prepared for the fall-out, despite the fact that all employees care about is what happens to them afterwards. Instead of having two cultures forge a battle royale or see one culture cannibalize the other, partner with your employees using DOWE. You’ll be able to articulate a new vision and culture as well as design new employment experiences that reflect them. Create a new identity that employees from both sides are proud to join. Instead of a mass exodus of talent, you might just garner enough attention to attract new talent at a time when business performance is so critical.
Deploy Change Management early and continually. Use of full-on change management is shockingly low during business as usual, despite the need. After all, change is constant in business. Something as huge as a merger or acquisition makes disciplined, well strategized and executed change management an imperative. With the culture studies in hand, DOWE helps organizations determine the distance and the path from the current to the future state. This brings people along for the journey as engaged collaborators throughout the integration. Isn’t that preferred over force-feeding the new state with all the pain that comes with disengagement and attrition of your best talent?
Sustain Changes. If you’ve gone through all the trouble, then you’d want to make sure your changes stick for as long as you need them. The positive aspects of the new vision, culture, and experiences post-merger need to be the new norm. The way to do that is to continue managing change well past integration. The DOWE process creates the opportunity to ensure that enough is done to set the conditions, support them systematically, and measure progress.
So before you go into your next merger or acquisition, think about how you want history to remember it. Then consider how these steps might help you. Thanks for reading!
Organizations are seeing people speak up about workplace harassment with the rise of the #MeToo movement. Instead of fearing it as a potential crisis, see this for the new possibilities it brings. After all, it’s a good thing to expose what’s hidden beneath the surface and confront what’s eroding the culture, employee experiences, and ultimately the business. The hope is that with these wake up calls, organizations can work toward building more authenticity and congruity among espoused values, culture, and lived experience. Inevitably, the question arises: What do we do?!
We are living in what could be a watershed moment in history. It can’t be ignored because “business as usual” will no longer be tolerated as a society. Use this hot topic as an opportunity to reflect as an organization and facilitate productive dialogue that leads to positive actions. As I’ve said many times over, manage it or it will manage you.
Let HR do its job and conduct the investigations for any specific cases that emerge—thoroughly and with fairness. It’s not meant to be a public spectacle, nor should it be by any means clandestine. As appropriate, communicate that the investigation is happening (especially if there are rumors) and allow due process for those involved (known or unknown). Shut down gossip and conjecture by emphasizing expectations and requirements for respect. Bring in counseling if needed. The outcome of these investigations should reflect true accountability for everyone involved.
Whether there are issues or not, this is a chance for the organization to say, “we care.” Provide resources, develop skills for communication, set expectations, reaffirm values, elevate employees. There are so many ways for companies to be the best they can be. Your workers will reward you for it with their talents, engagement, and productivity.
This also presents an opportunity for an organizational health check up—especially when it comes to culture. Read on.
UNDERSTAND THE CURRENT CULTURE AND EXPLORE THE POSSIBILITIES
Do a deep dive—and I mean a real honest, hard look--into the current culture. The Design of Work Experience (DOWE) methodology begins with a culture study, one that identifies your greatest strengths and unmet needs, as well as the overt and not-so-obvious key influences on the current culture. Employee surveys and focus groups don’t cut it. Use DOWE as a tool to find your starting point with authentic interactions that encourage the organization to understand its truth and build psychological safety for employees. Determine what conditions are in place for harassment or other dysfunctions to exist and identify the strengths, capabilities, and behaviors that should render them obsolete.
CO-CREATE A NEW OR ENHANCED CULTURE AND DESIGN ALIGNED EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCES
Inevitably, the culture study will highlight opportunities that can be seized upon. The DOWE process guides the co-creation of a new (or improved) culture along with the design of employee experiences to reflect it. Pay special attention to the co-create part by engaging with your employees as partners in design. After all, they (from the entry level to the senior executives) will be the ones to live this work. Experiment with new ideas and encourage innovation customized to your company’s unique context. Added bonus: capabilities are developed and utilized as the organization learns through the initiative.
MANAGE AND SUSTAIN CHANGE
Once there are strategies and designs, follow through with the change management needed to realize and sustain the future state. Plan, manage, measure, and follow up. Change has to be as successful as possible in order to make all that preceding work worth the investment. It can’t be wasted. We know from research that change doesn’t have to be perfect. However, the better it is, the greater the ROI. Change is never easy, but decades of research taught us a lot about what factors and practices work and don’t work.
TAKE THE FIRST STEP
You now have at least a general idea of what to do. Engage with your employees. And I’m here if you have any questions. Thanks for reading!
“The company needs to rebuild a culture of safety to prevent this from happening again.”
“We must establish a culture of innovation to remain competitive.”
“Their hostile culture of distrust caused this.”
We’ve heard things like this before, where culture is reduced to a single adjective. It also happens to trigger a personal pet peeve of mine. There may be dominant themes or characteristics of a culture categorized by things like “safety,” “innovation,” or “distrust,” but culture is never simply one thing. It is a complex social construct that influences behaviors, interactions, and perceptions in organizational life--not only when it comes to particular topics. So it’s never just a “this or that” culture, but Culture with a capital C. Even then Culture is only part of a bigger context in a company, a larger “system” (a la Peter Senge) made up of other big pieces, like business factors, environment, behaviors, experiences, and people. Changes in one area can have reverberating effects in other areas. Managing the big pieces and setting the right conditions is the key to being successful. This may sound overwhelming, but this is how it really is—life.
This is also why the making, changing, and managing of culture can never be simplified to a “Top 5 Things You Can Do” list. There’s way, way, more to it if you want it to be meaningful and real—and a company has to genuinely want to invest in their people in order to do this. Anything short of that is merely cherry picking actions that have little sustainability in the long-term.
Just because it takes more, doesn’t mean that it can’t be prioritized, organized, and approached with discipline. This is why Design of Work Experience (DOWE) exists and why I wrote Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences at Work as a much-needed how-to that didn’t exist before. Like any practice, the capability must be cultivated. And it’s worth it. Learn more about it here, or reach out to me.
Google announced a huge re-organization yesterday with the founding of Alphabet, it's new parent company. This gives a lot of latitude to explore a variety of new businesses that will be led independently.
With this, they join the ranks of other big "family" companies. Their new peers do okay, but IMHO no one's figured out how to do the conglomerate thing very well, especially when it comes to things like:
COMMONALITIES: What makes them all part of the parent company other than ownership? What should remain consistent with every subsidiary no matter what? Will they be bound by a common mission? (As of yet, Alphabet has not announced a new mission statement)
EFFICIENCIES: There tends to be an inverse relationship between size and efficiency. Work, resources, and money are wasted on multiplying the same thing over and over again. Other parent corporations have attempted to manage this by establishing Centers of Excellence (COEs) and sharing overhead functions like finance, IT, and HR--all with mixed results. These efforts at efficiency tend to decrease effectiveness and add bureaucracy.
CULTURE: Whether the subsidiaries will cultivate their own distinct cultures or share one large one is still TBD. Right or wrong, the reputation of the entire family of companies rides on its worst subsidiary culture. Culture impacts everything from employee morale to company performance. One large mistake in one place ( a poor decision, safety/compliance issues, etc.) could harm the business and reputation of the others. The ability to recruit top talent for future business needs can be impacted as well.
Even writing about these feels daunting. Alphabet's got some big challenges ahead, but...they can also be great opportunities. There's no shortage of opinions out there, but hopefully this unsolicited advice proves helpful:
It is my hope that Alphabet won't be just another conglomerate created simply because Google got too big. Rather, this is an opportunity for them to change the status quo once again and lead the way. Goodness knows the conglomerate model needs disruption. If anyone can do it, they can.
Wow, what a mess this #RedditRevolt has been. It's hard to imagine that Reddit planned for all this to happen on purpose, as some conspiracy-mongers have suggested. Doesn't appear this way at least. Who would subject their own company and personal reputations to such bad PR? The more likely cause was poorly planned and/or executed change. All this was preventable if they acted with an understanding of their stakeholders (users, employees, etc.). As with any organizational change, these stakeholders are the ones who will make change happen. In this case, they revolted. There's a lot that goes into doing change right, but here are some pointers above to get you started in the right direction.
This year's Super Bowl was fun to watch, even for me. My spouse called it the best...game...ever! What will live in infamy was that last call made by Pete Carroll, the Seahawk's coach. Everyone was talking about it. Those that gave him a fair shake understood why he made the call he made, but it was likely that other outcomes were not considered possibilities. That came back to bite them big time.
When it comes to purposeful work cultures, environments, and experiences, the design should be considered with not only the context in mind, but also the possible outcomes that might make a difference. You could have the best design in the world, but if the implementation stinks and sustainability can't be achieved with people, then you have a lot of wasted time and lost potential. That is why change management is a key part of the DOWE model and process. An organization's transformation brings the design to life.
That all being said, you can't anticipate for everything. There will be failures. We should live in workplaces (and societies) that allow for failure as learning opportunities to be celebrated. Let's let up on Mr. Carroll here--any one of us could be in the same type of situation, even if we aren't NFL coaches at the Super Bowl. He's a smart man who's strategy didn't work as planned. Haven't we all been there?
2/5/15 Update: Matt Lauer's interview with Pete Carroll happened to be on when I ate my breakfast this morning. Here are some sound bytes I jotted down quickly to illustrate:
"I'm an optimistic person...it's the way I'm wired."
My reaction: Good for you Pete Carroll, and I love that it is what drives your decisions and your philosophy after the fact.
"...never make a call thinking it's gonna go bad." My reaction: Thanks for confirming my suspicion, but I encourage that optimism with a healthy dose of planning for other outcomes. Even if he reaches the same decision again and has the same outcome, he has the right attitude about being positive.
It wasn't a bad call, "it was the worst result of a call" My reaction: This is the piece that I refer to above--sometimes you can't anticipate for everything. And sometimes it is the worst case scenario that happens. The test is what we do thereafter.
(Click here for the article) I happened to be traveling for work and in-between sessions with a client when I first read this. It could not have been timed better. I challenged the team to push their brainstorming beyond their comfort zones toward ideas that will really make a difference. This article on Business Insider is proof that those ideas don't have to be BIG ideas, just IMPACTFUL ones. What is the smallest or most straight-forward change your organization can do that will have the greatest impact? If you are stumped, perhaps DOWE can help. Look to the context of your organization to find the solutions that will work best.
Recently, I had a planning conversation with a client about the timing of “culture work.” I define “culture work” as any of the strategies and activities related to the culture, environment, and its people in an organization—all the components that make up the work experience. The president of the organization wondered, “When is the best time to do this work?” He wanted my opinion on it. It was a really great question to ask. My immediate answer was that it’s never a bad time. However, I think the question was more along the lines of, “When is the ideal time to do the work?” A few conversations later, the client was talking about a time a few years back when things were “bad”. I asked, “Could that have been a good time to do the work?” They answered, “Yes, I suppose so.” It reinforced their decision to partner with me and that the timing could be worked out. I love it when things sync up like that.
Let’s be real. Many companies struggle with this question, and oftentimes don’t come around to investing in this space until things get really bad. Indeed, as an independent management consultant I have had many-a-meeting where the leader values the work but the “when” gets pushed off in favor of other business priorities, like being “too busy.”
Culture work can be very complex and is by no means easy. The beauty of it is that because it’s a “journey and not a destination,” there are lots of on-ramps from which to begin the work. While I understand why leaders need to consider “when”, I am more concerned with whether they do it in the first place. My passion for this work makes me believe that every organization can benefit from doing culture work. To make it simple, let’s consider different “times” to start investing in your culture:
1. At the beginning. For those of you fortunate enough to be in start-up mode, there is something special about building a culture from the ground up. It is important to have this conversation and to strategize early. Before you know it, business will take off and culture gets away from you through several rounds of rapid growth. Then you end up with a culture that may not match your business strategy. Where the CEO used to touch every person, they no longer have that luxury and sub-cultures begin to form with or without their knowledge. I spoke with a start-up CEO about this very topic. His answer was that he valued the culture and the “feel” of his fast-growing business. He did this through “not defining” culture for his people. My response was that his approach was, in fact, a message in and of itself. I don’t think he liked that very much.
For those of you in established businesses or organizations, the “beginning” may be the start of a transformation effort. Given that there is actually something to change from, culture and your people are especially critical to consider up front. One executive I worked with put the kibosh on the people strategies we started for a major (and I mean major) transformation. He said we needed to wait one year into it. How does that even make sense? It’s kind of like, “Let’s see if and when we have any problems and then double back, cause I know how it’s going to be in exactly 12 months from today.” Save yourselves some heartache and start at the beginning.
2. Before a big change. Knowing your starting point intimately and thoroughly helps you understand your opportunities between the present and your future. That work gives insights on how to manage through the complexities of the change. You increase your chances of success if you are at least somewhat prepared. You can’t plan for everything, but you can plan to build the agility and self-awareness your organization needs to deal with surprises. I typically suggest a culture review called “A Closer Look” at the start of significant work. Its purpose is to engage people early and often. Designers call this “user research”. Based on the individual organization, a set of information-gathering methodologies is carefully curated to engage people and their leaders early on. Insights and criteria are built upon this body of work, and becomes the basis for a framework they can use to co-create that future.
3. During a big change. Change requires people’s active and aligned involvement to make it successful. A key practice during massive change is to engage, engage, engage. Let me be clear, employee engagement is not change management. They are different activities, but they certainly work in tandem to support each other. If you don’t purposefully manage the environments in which your culture resides, you may be sending messages that could in fact jeopardize your transformation. Remember, people are experiencing the change. Is it a positive or negative experience? Could it be better? How do you get the organization future-focused instead of entrenched in the past? How your organization deals with people especially during a period of stressful change makes a huge difference.
4. After a big change. After all that turmoil, culture work is the best way to establish the direction for the future. Managing the new world and how people experience it ensures a consistent message. It also provides stability people might seek after the craziness. It reinforces the new social contract between employee and employer on how things are going to be (for now). It gets people off all that worrying and sets the conditions whereby people can work happily. Culture work could happen after any type of big change, but consider the example of a big merger. Do you want people from the legacy organizations duking it out to see which culture wins, or do you want to create the new culture through which everyone can work together?
IMHO, any culture work can be good as long as it is purposeful, meaningful, and based on a set of values and principles with an aligned business strategy. Pick your idiom: “a watched pot never boils”, “you can improve what you measure”, etc. What it means is that culture work (i.e. managing that environment and designing that employee experience) keeps things progressing in the right direction and prevents a major blow up. Those that know me have heard me say that most business problems boil down to cultural issues—think recalls or whistleblower lawsuits.
Now back to that original question. When is the best time to do culture work? The motivation behind that question might be any number of possibilities, but consider:
Curiosity—Not knowing and simply asking the question is something I really appreciate, especially when it is in the spirit of seeking to understand. I hope that what I’ve written above gives you at least one opinion to consider.
Money—At the end of the day it (understandably) might come down to deciding where and when to invest dollars, especially if those resources are scarce. I would recommend you put your money into strategy planning up front. Bringing someone in like me will help sort through the thinking and articulation of those thoughts. We then develop it into something tangible that serves as an anchor for the work ahead. The follow through (and its accountabilities) is up the organization to see that it happens, though outside consultation could also help keep you honest.
Fear—Also understandable, this culture stuff can be scary. Consider what is a big part of that work…engagement with your people. So when you ask when, think about whether that also means you are asking when to engage (and I mean really engage) with your people in unprecedented ways. Most will want to start engagement ASAP. If you aren’t sure how “ready” the organization is, perhaps A Closer Look can help you find out.
Answer: The time is now. Contact me. Or someone else that you can trust and will deliver. The outside perspective might offer you an objective view and/or experience level not available from within. Just make sure you do the work because it’s worth it.
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