How do you prevent your corporate culture from stalling?

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How slow should a culture goThere is plenty of discussion, quite rightly, about the fact that people are overworked, that they are under ridiculous pressure, that they feel undervalued and unmotivated – but a couple of conversations this week have got me wondering whether the opposite, an unpressured culture, whilst not as destructive, may nevertheless be undesirable, albeit for different reasons.

I’m always concerned for instance when people inside a culture tell me that the place they work at is comfortable or that it has a real family feel. In a corporate cultural setting, too often those terms are code for a work force that is happy to leave things as they are. The other word that always rings alarm bells is “busy”. When people tell me they work in a busy workplace, that too is often code – this time for a lot of activity, noise and meetings, but without focus and without measured and effective outcomes.

So how much urgency do you need in a workplace? Is some degree of turbulence necessary to keep people on their toes? And if so, what form should it take? Does a culture have a stall speed?

First let’s clarify what’s not necessary. What’s not needed, and what there is no excuse for, are the ways of working that some managers still use to incite action: bullying, discrimination, bad behaviour, disrespect or other equally destructive behaviours. What is useful though is the adrenalin surge that comes with doing good work well, and with looking to achieve change that is surprising, inspiring and competitive. ‘Good urgency’ focuses on exactly that.

Generating urgency

Philip Kotter’s study of the effectiveness of change in organisations, cited here, found that 70% of all major change efforts failed, or were completed significantly behind schedule or over budget. The most significant reason for this was a lack of urgency.

Kotter suggests that true urgency encourages productivity and innovation: “It is often believed that people cannot maintain a high sense of urgency over a prolonged period of time, without burnout. Yet … true urgency doesn’t produce dangerous levels of stress, at least partially because it motivates people to relentlessly look for ways to rid themselves of chores that add little value to their organizations but clog their calendars and slow down needed action.”

Of course there is no universal ideal speed for a corporate culture to compete at. Some sectors simply need to move more quickly than others. The key is finding a speed that is quicker than comfortable, but measured enough to ensure responsible and consistent behaviours. Here are my five rules for doing that:

1. No gain, without pain – a culture won’t react with urgency without a pain point. Unless the consequences of not changing dramatically, demonstrably and emphatically outweigh the consequences of bringing change about, people will generally opt to leave things as they are. If you’re the one making the case to up the pace, bring proof – lots of it.

2. No gains without meaningful context – unless people have a clear and inspiring framework to work within, there are no reasons to be urgent. Purpose decides more than what you’re aiming to achieve; it defines what you’re asking your people to expend energy on. Simply put, meaning engages people – and engaged people work better. According to McKinsey, “The opportunity cost of the missing meaning is enormous … employees working in a high-IQ, high-EQ, and high-MQ [meaning quotient] environment are five times more productive at their peak”.

To gain that sense of meaning, McKinsey suggests framing what needs to get done around six stories simultaneously:
1. the turnaround story – the business case for significant improvement
2. the good-to-great story – which stresses the capability to be the undisputed leader
3. the societal impact story – the intention to make things better in the world
4. the customer story – why customers deserve more and how they will benefit
5. the working team story – the support that the team will receive
6. the personal gain story – what each participant stands to gain from getting involved.

Logical stories don’t impel actions. Emotional stories, based around things that people really care about, do. The article cites the example of a cost-reduction program at a large US financial-services company. When the need for action was sold to staff on the basis of the need to bring expenses into line with revenues, it bombed. Retold, as a story about society (more affordable housing), customers (increased simplicity and flexibility, fewer errors, more competitive prices), working teams (less duplication, more delegation, increased accountability, a faster pace), and individuals (bigger and more attractive jobs, a once-in-a-career opportunity to build turnaround skills, a great opportunity to “make your own” institution), buy-in leapt. Observes McKinsey:“The program was still what it was—a cost-reduction program—but the reasons it mattered were cast in far more meaningful terms.”

3. Not just urgency, but a culture of urgency – unless there’s a sense of urgency across the whole business, take-up will be sporadic, and may even see ‘motivated’ groups choosing to silo themselves from others they consider lazy. Urgency requires unity – or at the very least, agreement on the need to move forward in a co-ordinated way to achieve agreed goals. Kotter again: “With a culture of urgency, people deeply value the capacity to grab new opportunities, avoid new hazards, and continually find ways to win. Behaviors that are the norm include being constantly alert, focusing externally, moving fast, stopping low-value-added activities that absorb time and effort, relentlessly pushing for change when it is needed, and providing the leadership to produce smart change no matter where you are in the hierarchy.”

4. Measured achievements – Urgency can devolve to panic unless all involved have a clear timetable for what is being done. The key to finding the right level of urgency is agreeing the pace that people need to work at in order to achieve the purpose. Using the organisation’s biggest and brightest objective as the pace-setter puts everything in perspective, adds deep underlying reason and encourages measures that also prevent rash actions. Regularly reporting on progress against the purpose and against specific goals gives people context and the momentum to push for the next level of achievement.

7 ways to maintain urgency

Interestingly as I was writing this post, I came across this piece in Fast Company that sets out how organisations with big goals keep people motivated. Much of what they discuss seems to inform how we should be looking to maintain good urgency in cultures:

1. Encourage resilience. With the pursuit of purpose come good days and bad days. What matters most is the ability to quickly rebound from failures.

2. Celebrate the journey not just the destination. Make victory about solving every problem rather than just big accomplishments.

3. Share the energy. Be single-minded, and use the singularity of that end goal to unite and energise people.

4. Believe in the ability to do hard things. Don’t be stymied by fear of failure.

5. Do work that has an impact. Aim to create change at scale by asking your people to address and resolve world-changing questions. The McKinsey article gives the example of David Farr, chairman and CEO of Emerson Electric, who asks four questions consistently of people in the organisation:
(1) how do you make a difference? (testing for alignment with the company’s direction);
(2) what improvement idea are you working on? (emphasising continuous improvement);
(3) when did you last get coaching from your boss? (emphasising the importance of people development); and
(4) who is the enemy? (directing energy towards an external threat).

6. Demand balance. People need opportunities to be renewed and reinvigorated. They can’t do that if they are chained to their desks and (by extension) their mobiles.

7. Push your company as far as you can every day. Have specific and actionable items to complete each day that move you closer to your goals individually and collectively.

Photo of “Slow Down” by Loozrboy, sourced from Flickr

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