Culture change: The medium is the message
How you work with culture has a great impact on the culture you end up with. The Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message”, meaning that the medium through which we choose to communicate holds as much, if not more, value than the message itself. Similarly, the way in which you do a culture change, a culture journey or a culture transformation, determines how such initiative is received.
Let’s take a few imaginary examples, where the way of working with culture is not aligned with the desired culture:
- The management of a financial services company concludes that they are too rigid and bureaucratic to keep up with speed of how the market changes. They wish to decentralize decision making and empower their people to take more initiatives. So, they launch a culture transformation program which introduces new values: “Take action, Responsibility, New ideas”. These values are implemented through a communication campaign and a train-the-trainer program. Workshops are organized to allow teams to discuss what the new values means for their daily work. However, as the design of the transformation doesn’t include channeling back feedback from workshops or following up on new ideas, the employees end up feeling not listened to. In addition, individual initiatives are killed by team leaders who stick to normal business priorities. Consequently, the focus on “rolling out new values” effectively fails to live up to the very values that the management wishes to guide the operations. Instead of feeling freshly empowered, the employees view the culture transformation program as yet another initiative controlled from above.
- After a period of internal turmoil, a medical care group decides that it needs to embrace a listening culture. It updates its toolbox with pulse surveys to be able to gather more data from its people. It collects data both routinely and spontaneously in order to listen in on the organization. However, the results are rarely communicated back to the organization, and few actions are taken by management based on the results. Consequently, people are left feeling ignored. And despite other initiatives such as coaching team leaders, the perception sticks to people in the organization that they are not listened to.
- An industrial manufacturing company wants to scale up a successful pilot of agile working which has run in its software division, and implement this way of working in the whole group. The company translates the learnings from the pilot into an operational excellence manual which is rolled-out to all divisions and teams, with detailed milestones and expected goals set for the next 24 months. Deviation from the manual is only allowed after approval, and only if it could also work for the whole group. Suggestions to share failures as much as successes is resisted from management. While agility is promoted, progressive teams feel that control and efficiency still trump experimenting and learning from failures.
- A thirty-year-old IT consultancy wants to become more innovative and creative in order to be attractive new customers, as well as being able to hire and motivate talent. It creates a new EVP and launches an internal communication campaign to communicate the new vision and values to the employees. Although the EVP is well designed, the way it is communicated follows familiar practices from the past. A kick-off with speeches, printed t-shirts and other merch, and team sessions for a few weeks. Combined with only a few real changes to the operations and the way of working, the campaign leaves employees feeling like the company is just like the other competitors pretending to be spicier than they really are.
These imaginary examples highlight the risks of doing culture without real intent. The least bad outcome is direct cost – wasting a well-intended investment. The worst outcome is cynicism and disengagement. Understanding that the way you work with culture – creating, shaping or sustaining it – impacts the culture itself, would see the above examples be done differently:
- If you are looking for a culture of empowerment, let people influence the culture, and include the people in all phases of creating and sustaining such culture. Allow teams to consider what empowerment means for them and how they can take action on what they wish to see more and less of. Only co-creation will walk the talk of empowerment. In the extreme, even empower people to validify if empowerment is a cultural priority.
- If you are looking for a culture of agility, manage culture as something fluid that is continuously tested, evaluated, and modified. You can’t achieve a truly agile culture, if the way you are working with culture is not also agile. Measure culture constantly, admit and discuss culture failures, pilot sub-cultures, share learnings, and occasionally question even the strongest held values.
- If you are looking for a culture of innovation and creativity, work with culture in a way that surprises and goes beyond the normal. Increase diversity in the culture team, including newly recruited and ex-employees. Test new tools. Find input or help from untraditional sources. Accept that your culture project will have the same success/fail rate as other innovative projects in your organization. Be bold and humble at the same time. View failure as an option but fail early and make sure to use it as a learning.
By working with your culture in the same way as you want your culture to guide your people and business, you will see instant benefits. First, you will learn faster. If your cultural aspirations make working with culture more efficiently, they are more likely to also work for the rest of the organization. If you struggle, your cultural aspirations may need to be calibrated. Second, your ambitions will be credible. You eat your own medicine, which of course is a test of your own belief and commitment, and which consequently make your ambitions much more credible to the people you want to engage.
If you want your culture to be more of “X”, work with culture in a “X” way. The medium carry as much weight as the message when it comes to activating your desired culture.