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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