The idea that there’s a quick fix for culture can cause lots of problems. As Jay W. Lorsch and Emily McTague put it in their Harvard Business Review article, “Culture isn’t something you ‘fix’… cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges…. Culture isn’t a final destination. It morphs right along with the company’s competitive environment and objectives.”
Employees are constantly told they need to change processes and practices, only for the leadership team to keep on doing what they always do, and managers maintaining the same old routines. Despite an initial surge of enthusiasm, nothing ever changes. The irony is that “change fatigue” can set in, despite “the way we do things around here” remaining very much the same.
Our latest survey with Corporate Leaders into cultural transformation found that change fatigue is one of the Top 2 challenges faced when building organizational cultures. Other surveys also state that change initiatives flounder because companies lack the skills to sustain change over time. When the reasons and need for change are poorly communicated, everyone feels frustrated and deflated.
David Altman, our COO, argues for giving leaders and employees a short, sharp shock: in effect, “If you think change is constant now, then you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“What leaders must do is to help employees and managers to recalibrate their expectations,” David argues. “This is the world we live in now — change is a constant. There is no ‘getting back to normal.’ The message from leaders needs to be: ‘Let’s get ourselves in shape as individuals and as an organizational culture to embrace the opportunities and to manage the challenges of constant change in the dynamic world that we live in. Let’s equip ourselves together to become more resilient to accommodate that.’”
David has been working with a large company in the energy sector that’s attempting to reinvent itself in the face of volatile market conditions. “This is an organization that realizes, given the VUCA [Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous] world of energy — whether it is oil and gas prices, competition, government policies and so on — that what worked in the past doesn’t work anymore, which was just generating energy and selling it at a good price. It’s also not just about hiring more good engineers,” he says.
“Engineers are trained to identify problems and come up with a solution, they are steeped in LEAN and Six Sigma. But they are not set up to take risks, to be innovative, and try new things out,” David adds.
This is by no means limited to the energy sector. Across all industries, many traditional, hierarchical global companies are struggling to adapt with sufficient speed and thus must change their mindsets about what is needed to survive and thrive in the new world order. Whether it’s financial changes post-2008, geopolitical crises, Brexit, immigration, or competition from Silicon Valley, the winds of change now constantly blow.
Legacy companies with ingrained cultures have to understand that “there is no end point — this is continual evolution,” David says. The ability to be innovative and flexible is directly linked to the ability to constantly change and seek new opportunities.
“Most successful change initiatives start with baby steps, even transformational change,” he adds. “If you want to lose weight, you don’t starve yourself for a week — that isn’t sustainable. Instead, let’s get ourselves in shape as individuals and as organizations to embrace the opportunities and to manage the challenges of constant change in the dynamic world that we live in.”
It may be a tough message. But it need not be a harsh reality; forget “change fatigue,” David says — instead, think of “change energy.” Dynamic, innovative, changing, and constantly learning: this is the new reality. And it is — with the right leadership — an exciting and galvanizing message for employees.