Master Moves™

The Keys to Cultural Change

Example reveal the keys to shifting a culture.

Fully understanding the invisible rules - including the cultural currency - which determine peoples' behavior - most often without their knowledge (also demonstrated in 'Mobilizing a Workforce', above).

Working collaboratively with employees to invent a new metric for the desired change, which fascinates them and fuels professional pride.

The power of both keys is based on recognizing and respecting the current rules of the working culture. We mobilized the expert Fortune 500 engineers by showcasing their knowledge: providing a new way for them to demonstrate how much they knew. We raised the service standards of the 'low level' workers in the Clinic by valuing what they believed was important, and finding new ways to make it actionable and measureable.

Below are two other examples of desired cultural change, where Senior Executives met with a great deal of resistance.

In the mid 90's, I accepted a challenge to work with a cross-functional team of 36 angry scientists in a Fortune 100 company. The Executive Vice President was concerned: composed of high-status employees with excellent track records, the team was actively rebelling against the new CEO's directives. Their project - both mission-critical and high risk - was to invent a new type of cancer drug. Viewed as "The best scientists money could buy," they were part of a much larger group that was furious at what they believed was a demand for greater focus on producitivity that would compromise the quality of their science. That commitment to the quality of their science turned out to be the first key.

They viewed me as a representative of the "Yankee Greed" which was driving their new management to demand a richer pipeline of drug candidates. I listened carefully as they hissed, "We've got double digit profitability - what more do you want!"; "Even Wall St. says we're set for 10 years - what the %@*! is your problem?"; "Who do you think discovered those drugs? We did!"

Like the engineers in "Mobolizing A Workforce", they experienced the CEO's imperative as a blow to their professional pride. I knew that by harnessing that pride, I could get them to show me the opening to the change we sought.

I invited them to work with me for one day to find a new way to approach an efficacious cancer intervention. They were just shy of contempt in their response, and I quickly agreed that I knew nothing about cancer, nor could I begin to distinguish the disciplines in which they earned their PhDs and post-docs. But, I claimed, "I do know a little something about inquiry."

My invitation to play with "The linguistic structure of inquiry" provoked their curiosity. I fired Neuro-plasticityt with an interesting question spoken in the language of their currency: being smart. They stopped hissing. (We didn't know it at the time, but Neuroscientists have since established that kind of curiosity gets dopamine flowing in the brain: a pleasure drug.)

I made it clear that any of them could leave at that moment with no negative consequences; I didn't know their names, and wasn't about to report who was present. The believed me; they stayed.

They realized that they had been measuring success like academic institutions do: by how long they could get project funding and how much they could get. They suddenly saw that this practice resulted in their holding on to projects as long as they could - rather than quickly discarding the ones that were not going to yield new drugs. That practice was slowing them down, without making their science any better. In that moment, they saw a new way to succeed. They decided to measure how quickly they could eliminate projects: the second key.

That new measure drove the desired cultural change. It fascinated them. It allowed them to be even smarter at a game they wanted to play. They increased their productivity and their professional pride, and the fear of compromise vanished.

In that moment, the cultural change became actionable and began to feel right to the people involved. The buzz flashed through the R&D campus. Here's another example, this one from a small software company: the global leader in their space.

A new CEO was challenged with merging 2 cultures: One, New Zealand based, from the founding organization which developed the winning products; the other, US big corporation-based, from new management brought in by investors to grow the company and extend market leadership.

When we began the project, employees and managers from both cultures were complaining that they did not feel respected. The CEO was very unhappy with the situation - respect is extremely important to him.

Using a process similar to that with scientists, about 13 people were invited to reflect about how employees might know they were respected. We learned that they all wanted to "feel gotten": to know that colleagues and managers fully understood their concerns and commitments. I suspected that once that happened, they could let go of habitual approaches and design more effective solutions together, grateful for their smart colleagues. Again in this case, the first key was clear early on: they greatly valued respect and gratitude. The challenge was how to make that actionable and measurable.

Even though they thought it unlikley, they were interested in the notion of one compelling new metric. After a bit of work, we decided to measure how quickly they could get everyone attending a meeting - in person or by phone - to agree that their concerns were 'gotten'. During the ensuing year, it became clear that several members of the Senior Team felt themselves exempt, which greatly slowed our progress. In the second year, we initiated a report card for managers which tied their bonus directly to their 'respect' scores. One senior exec lost his job; everyone else greatly improved their scores.

This worked by the same principle as the scientists and at the engineers: based on their values, and in their language, we created a new process and a new metric. It worked because it got them what they wanted: respect and acknowledgement for being 'smart' in their own ways, while at the same time it grew their appreciation for the 'foreign' culture and their appetite to collaborate with those colleagues.

The Company has greatly increased its revenues and its market leadership. Buyers are knocking. Competitors are hurting: they scramble to copy products, but there's no way for them to observe the invisible rules that continue to drive the leader's advantage.

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