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Business culture – part 2

My previous post on this topic looked at what is business culture, how to identify it and what does the term mean through various levels of an organisational structure. This post focuses on change and why the need for change.

Why should the culture be changed?

In order to change a culture, one needs to understand the what/where/why/how; what it is currently, where you want it to be (your objectives), why you want it to change and how you are going to get there. These factors are interdependent upon one another, to miss or skip any of these could result in short term gains but will not afford sustainable results.

Here I look at indicators that could help answer the question above but first, one of my anecdotes:

A little while ago, for various reasons,  I left a large, corporate business. About a week later I received a message from the head of one of the production departments, an individual who was further down the organisational structure, it went something like this:

“Hi Andy. Just wanted to ask how you are and to say I’m shocked that you’re gone. You have changed the company so positively, our way of thinking and doing things has also changed. What I liked most is how you changed Mr X positively (the senior manager on site). I always had respect for the way you worked”.

The reason for sharing this anecdote is to illustrate that when done properly, with conviction and with respect, culture change is achievable, your team will follow your lead and any realistic objective becomes. That doesn’t mean it is easy, be under no illusions that it is, it takes a lot of skill and understanding of the mechanics of people management to successfully plan and implement culture change. To further the management toolbox metaphor that I’ve used elsewhere, you’re going to have to use that rusty spanner in the bottom drawer, forgotten and thought lost, to successfully achieve change in some businesses (future posts on People Management and Leadership discuss this in more detail).

To change or not to change?

Changing the culture of a business is not always necessary, although in most of my assignments, whether short, medium or long term, each has required cultural change in order to achieve my objectives. The most successful, continually, performing businesses have a cyclical approach to improvement and the best of them never cease to stop, change is the norm therefore, that is their culture. This is the top echelon of business and there are few organisations that consistently perform to this level.

Conversely, there are businesses that firmly position themselves within this upper level, from global corporations with numerous sites to the smaller, privately owned entities, yet struggle with maintaining a forward thinking and developing culture. Unfortunately, due to the leadership having their collective heads in the clouds, these are the most difficult businesses in which to implement change but are the ones most in need of it.  

Identifying past evidence of failure – change management

Before I go into specifics there is one, vitally important topic that I must raise; the absolute recognition of and respect for national and cultural identity.

The two examples given below were assignments in “foreign” countries, that is, foreign for a British citizen. Just because my native language, English, is the predominant, global business language, it did not give me the right to disrespect, trample over, or ignore, the country or the people at the place in which I had been assigned.

If one gains nothing else from this post other than that message, then I would be satisfied. Begin any international assignment by learning something, anything about the identity of the place in which you are assigned and act respectfully.

In too many businesses I have seen evidence of failed attempts at broad scope change. If all these attempts failed, so visibly, what needed to happen to allow the objectives to be achieved? Cultural change.

The following site did not have English as its native language, yet all of the notices were in English. Could there be a more culturally insensitive or dismissive act than this? And this was sanctioned by the UK based leadership team, utterly disrespectful.

Here the objective was to improve production output in order to increase capacity. Evidence throughout the site showed that this had been attempted, unsuccessfully, on numerous occasions over previous years. Various notices and posters promoted “best practice” and “lean manufacturing” messages around the site but they were dogged eared, out of date and often obscured. The proven effectiveness of signage was not only being ignored but also, any attempt at engaging the management team in “change” discussions resulted in looks of derision (I actually had responses of, “here we go again” and “we done(sic) that before”). Apathy ruled the day; this was entirely due to past failures and incompetence by external practitioners. Things definitely needed to improve and only the people within the business had the power to do this but first they needed to change.

When I worked in the Middle East, I came upon a culture that redefined, or at least I thought, my understanding of business culture*. In this assignment I was recruited as General Manager of a business that had 26 different nationalities and 40+ languages spoken on the one site, yet all 500 (male) employees had to work to the same business objective, from my lead team, through the supervisor level to the operators on the production floor. (*I discuss this in further detail in my posts on Leadership and Motivation)

This business was once a leader in the region but was now just a method of providing the parent company with sufficient cash to keep other group businesses afloat so, when I arrived it had reached (in reality passed) the point of optimal output and productivity. The equipment was poorly treated, seldom maintained and the employees lacked direction; there was certainly no evidence from them of teamwork, either visible or latent. My objective was clear; increase output to achieve the daily invoicing target, not something that was achievable given the prevailing situation so the answer presented itself very simply. Cultural change.

The latter example was a huge challenge. Not only was I facing a management issue but I had to figure out how to personally engage with a culturally disparate workforce to create one organisational culture that wanted the same thing; to make the business a success.

And there we conclude this latest post. I hope I have provided enough food for thought for those of you who are in the process of, or are about to embark upon cultural change. If doesn’t apply to you now, yet you are an aspiring manager, then it will at some point in your career.

©   Andy Collinsson 2020

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