How to manage the noise of culture change conversations

How to manage the noise of culture change conversations

Conversations are going to happen

At the time you announce the new strategy, reorganization, acquisition, or any significant change into your organization the conversations are likely already underway everywhere in your organization. It is human nature, and brain science has verified, we want to eliminate uncertainty in our lives; therefore, we talk to each other about what is happening around us. If we are not talking, then you can be certain that we are thinking about what is going on around us and not focused on the task at hand resulting in less than normal productivity.  Stated another way, the amount of alignment and clarity in your organization is decreasing.

The cost of noise

These conversations are noise in the organizational system. Have you ever taken a moment to consider the costs of this noise?  For example, assume a 1,000 employees and conservatively they are spending 1 hour per week talking, or thinking, about a new strategic direction you recently announced for your organization that will be implemented in the next 12 months. Now do the math; 1,000 employees x 1 hour x $65.00 (use your own loaded hourly rate) and you get $65,000 a week in lost productivity!  The quicker you dive into the conversations in your organization the less impact these unproductive or counterproductive conversations will have on the goal you are trying to achieve. In fact, this is an opportunity to use the conversations momentum to build trust and steer the organization towards your new goal.

Crystal Clear Story

Get crystal clear about what success looks like for your organizational change and create the story about this change to be shared throughout the organization. To enhance clarity and alignment there are three questions a leader should ask:

  1. Is the definition of the future simple, clear and compelling? – Your future should be defined and described in 3D. The dimensions include beliefs, behaviors and results!
  2. Does everyone understand how they contribute to achieving the vision? – make sure every member of your team knows how they connect to the big picture. Being productive in ways that do not contribute to achieving the future vision wastes precious time and resources.
  3. How do I translate the measures and metrics we use to report performance in a way that is meaningful to the whole organization? – Pictures are always more captivating than numbers or words. Use them to illustrate the progress you’ve made toward your compelling future.

Casting vision is a misnomer. People are not fish. You don’t cast a vision over them and catch them. Vision must be defined clearly and repeated often. The goal of a vision is to ensure that everyone is going in the same direction to achieve the same outcome. Use these questions to increase the effectiveness of your vision and increase clarity and alignment.

Dive Right In – Engage the organization in conversation

Once you have developed the story it is time to dive into the river conversation and move the current in the direction of your strategic goals.  There a number of ways that you can create conversations within the organization, but what matters most is that Dialog takes place.  This means listening, understanding and acting upon what you hear.  Here are three, of many, options to create meaningful and powerful conversations that will improve clarity and alignment within your organization.

1. The Discovery Dialog Sessions

If you are going to initiate a culture change journey, it is important to begin from a common place of understanding by assessing the organizations baseline culture. Whether you use a survey, focus groups or another technique to gather data about your culture, you need the topic points to start a discussion at all levels about what your organization does well and not so well since culture positively and negatively impacts every major change effort.

Discovery Dialog Sessions are focus groups that have constructive conversations about KEY culture strengths and weaknesses with an intended outcome of gathering ideas for improvement from all organizational levels. What are you doing well and should do more of?  What do you do poorly and should stop doing?  What do your customers want? What should your employees expect from the organization and vice versa?  There are lots of things to talk about, the key is to pick three or four main operating drivers, or culture traits, that have a high impact on your strategy and discuss.

A constructive conversation is at the heart of leading well; it:

  • Centers on a common purpose – In this case it is about understanding the overall culture strengths/weaknesses and instigating ideas but the focus could be narrowed to discussing culture strengths/weaknesses that impact a specific problem, challenge or goal.
  • Makes a difference
  • Is guided by a leader – You

A constructive conversation:

  • Is a Dialogue – > Is not a debate
  • Is about Listening – > Is not about preparing an answer
  • Is about Being Open -> Is not about making judgments (assumptions)
  • Is about Connecting -> Is not about controlling

Once the constructive conversation has concluded, it is essential to document the ideas and insights so that the input can be collected, reviewed, prioritized, and acted upon at the functional and leadership levels.

2. The Intentional Grapevine

I distinctly remember a company that I was working with that had a particularly strong and well entrenched grapevine. If you had to tell two individuals about a change, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, by the time you hung up on one the other already knew about the change.  Now that is a slight exaggeration but the point still stands and you should see this situation as an opportunity.

Informal communication is just as important as planned communication. Like it or not, a substantial part of your culture is built through the grapevine. Focus some of your informal communication on top “influencers” within the team. There are always people who seem to have a great impact on others. It could be due to their tenure, competence, personality, or other reasons. Get the influencers on board, and you will gain momentum through allies who will give you the confidence to endure many obstacles.

3. The Change Advisory Network

There is definitely a limit to how many people a leader can have a one-on-one conversation with, but it is vitally important to keep track of the pulse of the organization. You have to ask yourself, “How do I know if my messages are getting through to the front line?” and “Are they getting it?” We have found an effective way to get the answers to these questions: establishing a Change Advisory Network.

This is a select group of people that represent every part of your organization at the front line and at middle manager levels. Their purpose is to meet once or twice a month, depending on your organi­zation’s specific situation, and discuss an agenda focused on gathering ideas, understanding rumors, and, most importantly, encouraging employee engagement. These groups are best organized in a way that allows for “safe” communication within functional silos and with people at similar levels in the organization. If you have trust issues in your organization, the safer, the better.

Manage the Noise

The above techniques are only a few ways to manage noise.  There will undoubtedly be instances where some people don’t want to be on board with the change. Don’t let these few detractors derail your objectives. Negative talk moves much faster in an organization and can have significant downward impact on your goals.  Coach and manage the negative nellies thru the change effort to a place of support for the change or help them find a successful future in another organization.

The take away here is that noise is unproductive and deters from your strategic objectives.  So dive into the conversation and create a symphony of healthy discussion about the culture of your organization.

Do you agree with this approach to constructive conversation about how culture impacts your change efforts?  What other ideas can you add?  Please comment on social media.

About the Author

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Scott Beilke

Faculty I am a results partner who can help you lead your organization through new challenges, strengthen the people around you to perform at their best, and confidently confront disruptive change head on. As CEO of Brighton Leadership Group, I have had the privilege of advising executives, leadership teams and boards of large, mid-market and emerging organizations throughout the world. I share some of my culture and transformational change experiences in the 2014 book - Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, and as a founding faculty member of Culture University.