Driving cultural change

If we’re honest, most attempts at culture change fail. We like to pretend that we’ve made small steps forward, but in reality we witness the prevailing culture continue.

The reason? Most approaches aren’t systemic, instead they focus on only some of the levers available and shy away from others. And without shifting the entire system, the almost inevitable result is that change is temporary and unsustained.

To make this point, we can look to the structure of other systems.

The first stage of learning to drive in the UK is the theory test. It teaches us all “the rules” of the system. What we should do in response to certain signals, how we should behave, what the expectations of ourselves and others should be.

Then we go and sit in a car, with a friend, family or paid instructor. In the model, we learn to apply the theoretical knowledge in to a practical environment. The reality is that in this application we start to learn how things are really done but maintain a level of congruence because of the artificial experience of “passing the test”.

And assuming that we manage to retain enough of the “right way” to get past the test and into our own wheels, we then go out in to the world and experience first hand and for real how the behaviours are applied in the system.

Do people stop at red lights?
Do they follow the speed limits?
Do people speak on phones?
How many people keep to the stopping distances?

On top of this we have the structural implementation, the speed cameras, the police, the insurance companies. What do they reward, what do they punish? What is accepted and tolerated, what is looked down upon and reprimanded.

In reality, this isn’t far from the approach of most organisations – with some form of classroom based intervention. However, when we look at the application of this back within the department and then the organisation as a whole; when we look at the structures that we put in place in terms of recruitment, promotion, reward and development – that’s where we start to see the gaps.

No system is perfect and there will always be a certain level of incongruence and imperfection – that’s because we’re human. If you drive, you’ve probably jumped a red light, broken a speed limit, looked at a text once or more. But we have an expectation that people who constantly break the rules will be dealt with and that if we generally abide by the agreed norms, then we will be ok.

The problem in most organisational change programmes is that the interventions take place outside the system – like the theory test – and expect a transference back in. But individual behaviour tends to norm to the group and group behaviours tend to be driven by the structure of the system, which we tend to neglect.

Put simply, organisations are systems. And if you want to change the culture of organisations, you need to consider the whole system. Anything short of this will almost certainly involve a lot of time, a lot of effort and resource, but ultimately end in inevitable failure.

The hierarchy of HR needs

As a business function we exist to add value to our organisation and their employees. If you ask any experienced HR professional where they would like to add value, you’ll most likely be told in a more “strategic” space. Ask a CEO the same question and you’ll probably hear much the same answer.

So if the desire is from both sides, what gets in the way?

Putting aside questions of capability to deliver at this level for the moment, the answer lies in the hierarchy of HR needs and HR delivery. Put simply, we try to do too much too soon, without delivering on the basics.

Let’s consider a simple HR hierarchy,

HRhierarchy.001First we need to fulfil the basic reactive, administrative personnel tasks that represent most employees’ experience with the business. The recruitment, the payroll, the benefits administration and grievance, disciplinary and performance management.

Next comes partnering. By this I mean working collaboratively with business leaders to tackle the issues that arise in a broad range of areas on a day to day basis. This isn’t just implementing th administration, but understanding the issues and helping to form solutions.

Once we’ve got this we can use it to inform the development of more proactive organisational interventions that are underpinned by, and drive the design of, the basic, reactive administrative tasks that form the base of our value proposition. In some ways, these first three stages operate as a continuous loop.

This is also the stage where we can start to successfully implement technology solutions to automate the interventions, but based on the organisational understanding that comes through true partnering.

Finally comes strategic delivery. With the three stages below working and constantly informing one another, we can use this feedback loop to help understand our strategic capability.

We can understand the gaps that exist between our future requirements and current capabilities, we have the data and insight that allows us to understand the steady state performance and we can use our knowledge to help connect this to the external opportunity.

Being strategic isn’t a goal in itself, it’s an outcome. If we can build our capability based on this simple model, then we can help more people deliver what we, and our CEOs, most desire.

Not a bad challenge to address as we start the New Year.

So what the hell is OD?

One of the first posts that I wrote when I moved to this blog was called, “The real definition of Organisational Development”. To this day it remains one of the most visited posts with the vast majority of visitors coming from a Google search. This, of course, is in no way related to the insight or expertise that I share more to do with the fact that it is a question that people are still asking.

I’ve had cause to talk about this subject again over the past few weeks and it started me reflecting on how my thinking had changed since 2011.

I start with a belief that organisations are systems and that our job as practitioners is to improve organisational performance through an understanding of that system, the tensions, the areas of friction, the opposing forces and, through this, take a cohesive approach to interventions to drive better performance.

That’s the easy part.

The hard part is that the reality is like knitting fog. The role of OD professional is to survive the necessary ambiguity that is inherent in the profession long enough to support the delivery of the interventions that provide the organisation with enough reassurance that they know what they’re doing. I use “support” here on purpose, because the truth is they probably won’t own the areas of intervention themselves. They can’t.

For me, warning signals flag when I hear of OD being associated with other specialisms, “I’m responsible for L&D and OD” tends to fill me with dread. I understand why it’s done, because the L&D becomes a crutch for the ambiguity. An ability to hang your “overhead heavy” hat on something that can be measured or defined. But OD isn’t L&D at all, it’s far bigger than that.

Enough of what I think, let’s look at an example. I’ve picked the definition from the CIPD, which seems as good as any, of OD being the ’planned and systematic approach to enabling sustained organisation performance through the involvement of its people’. In which case the interventions have to range across the organisation, to use all the levers available to us. Including compensation.

And I rarely hear “OD people” talk about reward, data or analytics, preferring instead to focus on “leadership development”, “team solutions” or “engagement”.

Four years later, I’m even more convinced of OD as one of the most important areas of practice within the sphere of HR. In some ways, I think it is another way of defining strategic HR management. But I don’t think we’ve progressed much further as a profession in making it a reality, mainly because we’ve positioned it in many cases as “super sexy learning and development”. Just look at the jobs that are advertised.

It would be a shame if we took an opportunity to play in a different space and reduced it to something comfortable, reassuring and known. If we missed the chance to refocus our efforts, our thinking and our profession. We need to accept that with higher thinking, with pioneering, with genuine strategic thinking comes a level of fogginess or risk of seeming “woolly at the start. But that the potential outcomes and benefits to the organisational system are far greater than anything else that we have ever done.

Why HR should hate change just a little bit more

I often hear HR professionals express how comfortable they are with change, how much they like it. I find this both peculiar and a little bit terrifying. The curse of many a modern business is the almost incessant approach to instigating  change. Initiative after initiative, programme after programme, with never enough time between them to properly evaluate or measure impact.

Normally these initiatives are driven by the leadership team and eagerly pounced on by HR leaders to show how committed they are to delivering the corporate agenda. I figure that’s why so many of them profess to like change; it provides the organisational hard-on of temporary, central importance.

Most of the time, we completely overlook the emotional and psychological impact of change. Success is measured in operational plans, in business cases, on gant charts and in milestones. Success is a tick box exercise.

And of course, as we all know, if the change really was that successful, it would only need to be done once.

Many organisations, many if not most employees, are change fatigued. They’re walking zombie-like waiting for the next initiative to come and fail. In the meantime, trying to do their jobs despite the machinations of their leaders to seemingly make things harder. Don’t believe me? Spend a day in any FTSE100 company or any part of the public sector and speak to the people actually doing the work.

Where is HR in all this? Well certainly not where it needs to be, understanding the impact of the changes on employees, diagnosing real organisational performance issues and challenging the business to fine tune and not continually volt-face like a goldfish in the throws of a drug induced epileptic fit.

I don’t want HR people to like change, I don’t want them to be comfortable with it. I actually want them to hate it a little bit more, to be wary of it. That way, they might take it a bit more seriously and think about the implications on the wider organisations. Not just where they’re going to get the next pat on the head.