Monday, November 8, 2010

Winning During the Slog -Part 4 - How to Create an Adaptable Culture

(From Issues for Growth Vol.19, No.16)

This is the fourth of a series of articles about how companies and individuals are winning during the “The Long, Slow, Hard Economic Slog” that we are in (Issues for Growth Vol. 19, No.13). This article is written by Chris Carosella who works with The Mead Consulting Group. – DPM

While working on their strategic plan for 2011, the CEO of a highly successful technology company asked the others, “How do you think our employees describe our culture?” Their initial responses included: “High energy.” “Get it done.” “Fast pace.” “Occasionally chaotic.” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with those descriptions, it can be a problem if management, instead of the employees, defines the culture. After reviewing the results of an employee satisfaction survey, this management team learned their culture was considered “exhausting,” “focused on tasks and to-do lists instead of results,” “urgent without purpose,” and “managed by crisis.” And then their discussion turned to, “What do we want our culture to be?”

Be intentional about company culture. Very few companies take the time to identify the kind of culture they want and then actively and purposely create it. Most companies end up with a culture that just happened while they were trying to build a business. And many companies decide culture means things like employee appreciation events, free food, decorated cubicles, or a “fun” environment.

Company culture is “the way we do things around here.” Culture is the sum of the beliefs and values that shape behavior and determine the ways things get done. For example, is the company driven by (a) results and achievement, or (b) relationships and people? Is the company (a) adaptive and flexible, or (b) structured and stable? We often think that culture is a “soft” thing that we can't really understand. And culture often makes leaders uncomfortable because they don't feel that they can control it. Since culture is an outgrowth of leadership, however, much of the culture is actually shaped by individual leaders' styles and work preferences.

Your culture can doom you to failure. It can prevent you from executing your strategy. An organization can have the best strategy in the world but a culture that won't allow it to happen is doomed. First and foremost, understand where you are now and where you want to be. There has to be a clear sense of direction and a vision for the organization and you must connect culture to strategy. Plus, you must have the right leadership – confident, flexible, creative, decisive, results-oriented, and empowering. Second, get employees from all levels involved to help determine what has to happen to get you where you want to be. For example, if you want to grow your revenue 20% each year and you’ve got disruptive conflict between sales and operations, you want and need an aspect of your culture to be collaboration. That means you include sales and operations employees in determining joint performance metrics and joint rewards. It also means sales management and operations management walk the talk of collaboration and teamwork.

Create a culture capable of adapting to any challenge. The next step is to purposely create a culture capable of adapting to any challenge – one that includes all employees learning how to anticipate possible scenarios with customers, competitors, or within the company. It means teaching critical thinking and leadership skills at all levels. And it means top management must have the confidence to let go. That’s easier to do when you:

· Set very specific goals and objectives for all areas of the company.

· Discuss with every level of employee what it means to adapt in your organization and how you’ll reinforce an adapting culture.

· Recognize people will respond to adapting initially as they’ve responded to change. If they don’t trust the leadership, disagree with the vision, or are excluded from the process, you cannot create an adaptive culture.

· Re-think authority levels and how decisions are made. You want the ability to take action at all levels and not all the control at the top.

· Share competitive, company, and customer information throughout the organization plus talk about what it means to your growth.

· Trust in the innate intelligence, capability, and creativity of your employees.

· Measure progress frequently. Talk about it often.

· Reward taking risks.

· Learn from mistakes.

· Repeat what works.

· Be quick to alter tactics. If something isn’t moving you toward your desired outcome, do something else.

· Communicate openly, honestly, and often.

Communicate, communicate, Communicate. Even when it’s inconvenient. Enough can’t be said about communication when it comes to creating a culture that embraces the ability to adapt. Today's employees are demanding it. Not everyone will thank you for your candor, but they will never forgive you for anything less. Open and honest communication goes beyond simply telling the truth when it's advantageous. You need a proactive, even aggressive, sharing of everything -- the opportunities, the risks, the mistakes, and the failures. And then encourage all employees to work on these challenges together.

Next: When It Can Go Wrong. Next article will deal with the ways that certain factors can prevent you and your company from developing an adaptable culture.

Some companies are experiencing significant “new thinking” results. What are you doing to change how you think about your business and create a culture of adaptability?

Check out the archives of the last 10 years of Issues for Growth on our website

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