Two years ago I was lucky enough to work with a client in healthcare as they underwent some semi-significant cultural changes.
A regional hospital with over 500+ employees, a history that dated back to 1895, countless stories of doing good for patients and their families, and a laundry list of amazing employee benefits that any employee would enjoy. Problem was, engagement numbers were bottoming out and the best and brightest talent at each level were defecting faster that leadership could contend with.
They were not only hemorrhaging people but profits as well. And we all know what happens when the bottom line is felt.
Upper management knew a change was needed, at all levels, but no one knew exactly where to start.
What’s worse of all? They felt they had to do it all yesterday.
The employees also knew that if things didn’t change, it was going to change for them.
Coming to grips with “We need to change”.
Even if you understood the exact thing that would change your workplace overnight, do you think you’d be able to go out and make it happen? My guess is no.
The laundry list of “reasons why change is hard’ is long. They range from “impossible to get a consensus” to “why is it my responsibility?” and as the bullseye changes, because it always does, so do these reasons to keep change from happening. It’s a lose-lose for many and you’re not alone if you feel that impossible, uphill, Sisyphus-esque battle.
In the case of this client, they were intimately aware of both the reasons for the change and the reasons why they couldn’t get started.
I sat in on a conversation with C-suite executives as they went around the room and gave their ideas for where to start. Each leader spoke from the heart and from experience. The ideas were all spot on. No one was off-base. In short, it was a productive, informative, and hopeful meeting full of ideas that would make real change. So why was the room deflated after they finished?
Because no one knew where to begin.
Against my better judgment, I spoke up. I said that any one of these ideas, by themselves, would create change on some level and that this meeting was successful for just putting these ideas down. The key, however, was to stop the assumption that this was a “hair on fire situation” first, and second, that they shouldn’t make any of these changes before they truly accepted that change wasn’t going to happen overnight.
“So we shouldn’t do anything?” one exec spoke up.
“No, just the opposite. You are going to do something, that much we know, but first you all have to drop the pressure and timelines that you’ve already assumed and instead commit to making these changes happen as they can be made.”
The room was silent.
Cultural change shouldn’t be “A last resort”.
Most often times, leaders see the time to make a cultural change as a last ditch, hail mary type of effort. But what does this communicate to your team? For one, it teaches employees that you’ll exhaust every other avenue until you have to deal with what it’s like to actually “work there”.
It also sets the stage for employees to be wary of “last-ditch” efforts in general and that’s bad. For one, you need the emotional capital available in your employees to sometimes “cash-in” on this and get employees to do something “because you say so”. Secondly, deciding to change the culture when most employees knew culture change was necessary years ago only reduces your favorable position. You create a double negative of both affirming your prior mistakes as well as affirming to your employees that these new efforts are “better late than never”.
Either way, you’re fighting a never-ending uphill battle.
When’s the last time you stood in the face of a lose-lose and got the desired results you were after? I’m guessing rarely, if ever.
But from my experience, this happens far too often. Most leaders push on with their hair-on-fire attitudes subsequently creating a toxic environment for leaders at all levels. This shifts everyone’s expectations into hyperdrive and creates the exact culture they didn’t want in the first place. One that isn’t really focused on details, or listening to employees, or all of the above.
We live in a world of amazing relative convenience. Modern life is finely tuned to incremental increases at rapidly growing rates. In many industries change is taking place at increasingly growing rates that we can’t control or even comprehend.
In 1990 famed futurist and MIT professor Ray Kurzweil predicted that, because of technological advancements in computer chips and processing speed (Moore’s Law), by 1998 there would be a computer smart enough to beat a World Champion Chess player at their own game. In 1997, Gary Kasparov the World Champion Chess player lost to IBM’s Deep Blue.
In 2004 scientists successfully sequenced the human genome for the first time. The total cost was $2.7 billion dollars. Today, scientists can sequence up to 18,000 annually at a cost of $1,000 per genome.
Evolution itself is happening at growing rates and the speed leaves many of us wondering when it will slow down. This goes for ideas inside the workplace as well.
How often do you find yourself being assigned new tasks before the last one is even close to finished?
Or how often is a new strategy proposed before the old one was successfully analyzed for its impact?
That’s why I’m here to tell you that the most worthwhile goals inside your organization will never, ever, be perfectly succinct in their accomplishment. Real results are felt over time by those who invest in making the change itself.
It’s a two-way street. In order for you to see actual change, you have to be both patient and persistent. Start by accepting that slowing down is okay. It’s not an ideal proposition, I know. Especially as these same advancements in technology only add to your list of to-do’s. But it has to start somewhere.
Accept that change will take time and that it doesn’t signal failure if the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and every other subsequent efforts don’t work perfectly. But to make any change, beyond accepting that it happens gradually over time, you must begin with your people first.
It all starts with actual human-to-human, in-person conversations.
Can we talk?
When was the last time you got a text that read “Can we talk” and got excited? Yeah, me neither.
Well, the same goes for your employees and structuring an employee conversation “road show” is both difficult and incredibly important.
In the case of the client above, their change efforts began with reaching out to team leaders first.
They focused on those who lived out the core values of the company first. Most of the people were known ahead of time but they circulated questionnaires asking for anyone who would meet the criteria and would want to give feedback. They then had sit down conversations with these leaders to unearth the specific behaviors that led to their team’s successes. These were the three questions they started with:
- What are your cultural strengths (who are you beyond the core values)?
- What are the cultural strengths of your team?
- What moonshot ideas (ideas meant to make incredible change) would you create and why?
These aren’t necessarily easy questions to answer 100% honestly for most leaders. Hidden in the question are any number of potential landmines for leaders and front-line employees alike. But the key to making these sessions work lies in the details.
Frame the conversation the right way.
My Mom used to ask me to clean my room every single Saturday morning and I would respond the exact same way, “Is Good Housekeeping coming to take photos for their next issue?” (Ya, I was that kid sometimes). Over time she realized that I’d just clean my room to the level of what wouldn’t get me yelled at. And that varied. Over time I never understood when one Saturday cleaning was more important than another.
So, she changed the way she framed it.
She created a “threat level” of sorts and included the all-important answer of “Why” appended to the end of each level. Level 1 was just clean your room so “that I can’t see anything on the floor so that our house doesn’t look like a pig sty”. Level 3 (there were only 3) was the level of having company over. That’s serious cleaning for a 13-year old.
However, this worked for me because on the days of Level 1 or even Level 2, I didn’t bat an eye at cleaning my room because I ultimately understood why she wanted me to do it. The same went for Level 3. I understood this was an important cleaning day, and although I didn’t like it because it required more work in my end- I did it.
Same went for this particular client.
Prior to each meeting, they sent out emails to each of the employees who were asked to attend, including their direct supervisor. It was a simple meeting request with one key statement:
We will be asking for honest and open feedback. Those that participate will do so without worry of judgment. We will keep your answers entirely private. Each of those asked will only be asked for answers to the questions they feel comfortable giving and we will report back our results to everyone and ask for feedback going forward.
That last sentence was the key.
In order to get buy-in on any level, you have to communicate your plans as well as how you plan on using that feedback going forward. Remember, everyone is already feeling the pressure of “having to make a change” and the last thing anyone wants to do is stick their neck out to only get their heads chopped off.
The results were in.
After their roadshow, the leaders came back to digest the information. They formed the same group that had initially come up with ideas for change. This time, they used this critical feedback to begin shaping the order of which ideas they would start with first.
We did this by first breaking down the feedback into categories or themes. We found the general theme of each piece of feedback and put them into clusters. Categories don’t mean as much as the cluster of ideas themselves.
Then we used these clusters and placed them next to the original ideas the executives came up with that was the most similar to the themes/clusters.
Those ideas with the most clusters of feedback around them signaled to us a pressing theme amongst the employees themselves. Although we did take down the individual ideas from the employees themselves, the more pressing need was to find where we wanted to start. Since we weren’t going to be able to execute each employee’s idea immediately, we knew that by grouping them to an existing idea a sort of “change-by-proxy” would exist. Those employees would both feel heard by their leadership and find trust that those at the top were spearheading the change on their behalf.
We also made note of those subsequent clusters and gave approximate timelines for when we honestly thought they would begin next.
Above all- this had to be communicated to the employees themselves. First, we communicated that their voice was heard, and second, we communicated which ideas would begin first and which ideas would come next. Leadership also communicated that these efforts were going to take place consistently and mindfully over time and that results would not be expected immediately (although KPI’s were created, they were not the lone measure of success).
More keys to making a change that lasts
Going beyond “slowing down” there are other critical elements to ensuring that a cultural change actually takes place. Not any one of these ideas listed above or below will result in immediate wins. That’s why we’ve listed a few more so you can find those ideas that make the most sense for your team. Group ideas together and sit down with stakeholders to construct how to move forward. Create timelines over the next 12-months to check back in frequently about the overall success while also finding ways to push the initiatives in the moment.
Here are some ideas we use to help teams creating lasting, impactful cultural changes:
- Match Strategy and Culture: Don’t assume that every strategy or initiative that is created actually fits the “personality” of your organization. We live in a society of “The grass is greener…” and sometimes leaders make changes that don’t fit for their employees or organization. Instead, strive to initiate change that makes clear sense for your employees because of who you all are (use your core values as indicators of that if you aren’t sure).
- Incremental gains over large changes and celebrate them all: On top of communicating the general direction of your immediate change efforts, don’t forget to recognize your employees as your leaders see improvement. This can (and should happen) granularly, in the moment, and over time. Don’t expect to just send “update emails” each quarter and expect to see continued progress.
- Recognize the strengths of your culture (and people) as they are NOW: Don’t wait to assume who your team should or could become over time. Instead, take inventory of those individuals who are living out your core values today. This isn’t to single out those who aren’t living them out (that will happen naturally as the new changes begin to take hold) but instead it sets the base of those that will carry the flag forward. You need them.
- Embrace informal interactions (they create formal ones): This might be the most important of the factors (besides celebrating the incremental gains) because this is where the real work happens. Meetings and structured events have a critical role in your cultural evolution but they don’t make the interpersonal change that happens informally at the water cooler, break rooms or work areas where your employees interact. We teach leaders that the most important tool in their informal toolkit is the words “How are you doing today?”. What’s even better, 53% of Millennial and Gen-Y employees see these informal interactions as meetings when done with a leader. Keep these informal moments short and frequent. Every 3-7 days for every employee if possible.
- Measure cultural evolution: I consult to use generic, and large metrics for evolution. If you’re not categorizing your turnover data (voluntary vs involuntary, etc) then start there. From there, tracking this important metric is critical to gauging the success you’re after.
Contact us if you’re interested in help constructing this sort of change inside your organization today.