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increases agility

Adaptable culture
increases agility

You often hear consultants, human resources professionals and even senior managers talk about the need to change the culture of an organization. But there seems to be a lot of confusion about what specific cultural elements need changing in order to meet the demands of the future. Since many people now agree that performance is linked to culture, before you can decide what needs changing about your culture, you need to determine what performance factors will have the most significant impact on the organization’s future.
Whether you call it re-engineering, transformation, change management or continuous improvement, what you see companies doing today, almost continuously, is trying to reinvent themselves.
Because of some change, perceived or real, in the external environment, their internal strategies, systems, structures and processes must change. But there is the difficulty. Organizations, especially large ones, are notoriously difficult to get moving in a new direction. The analogy used most often is that of a large ocean liner turning at sea. It will turn, but it takes lots of time and space. Today, companies usually don’t have lots of time and space to turn–the market is moving too rapidly.
As the rate of change continues to increase in the external environment, the ability to rapidly adapt, to be agile in the face of external change, is one performance factor that will determine the difference between success and failure. Therefore, some of the critical success factors in a company’s culture are those that contribute most to its ability to change rapidly. When change is a continuous part of the company’s future, a culture needs to be developed that is capable of supporting rapid change.
There are several areas of culture that determine the ability of a company to adapt and change rapidly. Four major elements or values that I consider key to build on are:
–a sense of community or belonging;
–building organizational vision;
–valuing learning; and
–open and honest communication.
In a sense, these are not independent elements, but are dependent on each other. You can’t build any of the four successfully by itself. However, each can be considered and acted on individually.
The first, building a sense of community or belonging, is probably the most difficult in today’s business climate. Unfortunately, during the last two decades, we have been teaching people that they don’t really belong, that they are simply a commodity, just a cost of doing business. We have taught them that they are subject to downsizing depending on the need to show short-term increases in profits. Unless employees feel a sense of connection to and ownership for the organization, they tend to act first in their own self-interest, with little or no loyalty to building a successful organization.
When change becomes necessary and employees are called on to give more than the normal amount of their mental and physical time and energy to the company, they will only give grudgingly, if at all. If forced to give, people with the most highly valued skills simply look to jump ship, usually at a time when the organization needs them the most. In order for employees to care about the company during times of stressful change, they must have a sense that the company cares about them, that they are a valued part of a larger community.
The second element, building organizational vision, is a necessity for ensuring a successful future for the company in the face of the setbacks, disruptions and turmoil that often are part of major change. This organizational success factor has fallen into disfavor lately, probably because it’s so misunderstood, and thus, poorly implemented.
Many well-known CEOs are saying forget vision, concentrate on execution. The question is, however, execute what? If an organization (and each individual) doesn’t have a preferred, long-term future that they are building toward, they have no guide during times of constant change within the organization. People who have no vision of what they are building toward can execute only what they are told, which limits the ability of the organization to move rapidly. People who know what they are building toward tend to take more responsibility for setting right what doesn’t work and producing the long-term results that the company needs.
This long-term vision also gives people a sense of some better future, which gives them the emotional energy to go beyond the ordinary, to do the impossible in the face of major changes that are disrupting the organization.
The third value I have listed at least is in vogue today. The whole concept of the learning organization, where each individual is responsible for improving his or her own critical skills and knowledge, is starting to take root in many organizations. Senior management is grasping the concept that the faster an organization can learn, the faster it can change itself for the better.
Typically, however, managers most easily understand this value in relationship to the training of the work force. But this value especially needs to extend into management, which historically has been an area where people have been conditioned that they need to know about everything in order to be good managers. With the amount of new information that constantly becomes available and the rates at which companies must change today, managers can’t hope to know everything that might be of value to their departments.
But they, as well as the work force, must put themselves in a constant learning mode. They not only must be constantly seeking to learn from employees, customers, competitors and other valuable sources–they also must be constantly seeking new ways for the organization around them to learn and use information.
The valuing of learning is a critical foundation for the fourth cultural value, open and honest communication. Without the commitment to learning, people tend to communicate from a position about what is right and what is wrong. Eventually, this creates rules for people regarding what they can and can’t communicate about. And when change is endemic, you can bet that setbacks, disruptions and upsets will occur around what people are not communicating about.
Listening to others out of respect, a true valuing of their ideas and the possibility of learning something from them creates the opportunity for them to be open and honest in their communication. With this level of communication, the organization will resolve and even short-circuit breakdowns quickly. In an organization attempting major changes, this often is the difference between success and failure.
These cultural values obviously are not the only requirements for creating an agile organization. Strategy, systems, processes and structures that have the ability to adapt quickly to changing requirements also are necessary. However, without the cultural values, even the most powerful of these will seem flawed. If you want to build in the ability to change your organization rapidly, you must build a culture that responds well to change.
(Paul Fraser is president of PDF Associates, an organizational-development and management-consulting firm specializing in accelerating change for organizations.)


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