Back in my corporate days, one executive attempted to change the culture of his organization. The culture, typical of the Midwest at the time, was generally easy-going and risk-averse. The well-meaning executive used the phrase “fire in your belly” to attempt to paint a picture of the results he was looking for. He meant that he wanted people to take more risks — to be advocates for change — but this wasn’t clear. Many thought he had indigestion and wanted to prescribe Tums.
A contemporary version of clear purpose can be found in Kickstarter’s mission statement, which reads, “…help bring creative projects to life.” Their purpose is clear. They create tools and resources that help people bring their creative projects to life, and that connect people around creative projects and the creative process. When a leader paints a clear picture of what she wants to accomplish and does so in terms of outcomes, she sets the stage for a successful transformation.
There are two other features of clear purpose that drive organizational alignment and execution:
- People throughout the organization understand how they will need to behave differently. The “fire in your belly” executive may have been better served had he talked about what it means to be provocative, to take risks, and to challenge each other’s thinking.
- Employees want to understand the WIIFM, or “what’s in it for me.” How do I, as an employee, benefit from the change?
When you don’t have a clear purpose, your transformation will lack priority, and the organization will respond by demonstrating a lack of urgency, missing deadlines, deflecting, and defecting. Employees will retreat to what is comfortable and known versus what is unclear or unknown.
There are three vital steps to ensure your organization is executing your purpose:
- Build a leadership team where individuals trust each other and are willing to engage in healthy conflict.
- Align on purpose and outcomes. Define how you want the organization to be different and be as specific as possible.
- State these outcomes and behavior changes for employees in terms of the WIIFM. Identify how the organization’s constituents will experience improvement because of the change.
Let’s explore each of these steps in greater detail.
1. Build a leadership team that trusts and engages in healthy conflict
One of my clients was the senior vice president of a newly formed leadership team. Trust was low, and healthy conflict didn’t exist. Members of the team had different agendas and spent staff meeting time advocating for their positions. They weren’t listening to each other. My client kept the cultural change out in front of his team and made his workplace transformation a priority. He asked me to help them develop a stronger leadership culture.
We held two workshops with exercises to increase trust among team members. We used a personality assessment to help team members understand how they each approached their work. We conducted real-world exercises to help them engage more effectively in healthy conflict. Within 60 days, people outside the organization commented that the team appeared more aligned.
Actions to build trust and healthy conflict:
- As the 55th mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel, once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Use challenges to drive a culture of healthy conflict. This will require you to call out harmful behavior, avoidance, and obfuscation.
- Identify a common goal, such as a looming deadline, and call on your team to work together to solve problems standing in the way of success.
- Reinforce trust and healthy conflict during your one-on-one meetings with your team. When one begins complaining about another, challenge them to take it directly to their peer.
- During team meetings, encourage members to disagree with each other. Seek out disagreement. You may not resolve the conflict in one meeting; give members time to consider other positions.
- Build team development time into your agenda. Use this time to work on trust and conflict issues. Perform candid health checks: “How are we doing?”
When your top leadership trusts one another enough to engage in healthy conflict, you achieve greater alignment, which in turn helps employees see more clearly the future state. Your purpose and outcomes become clearer to both the leadership team and employees.
2. Align your leadership team on purpose and specific outcomes
One of my clients had a long history of failure in implementing changes, particularly those related to technology. They had recently implemented a large HR and finance system that failed when they decided to implement an organization-wide system that would impact almost every employee and every customer. As this system would run almost all the organization’s underlying operations, it had to be successful. Failure would put them out of business. They asked me to help them manage the transformation.
One of the first things I did was help the senior leadership team understand that this was not just a technology change. The technology implementation would cause almost all their business processes to change. This meant that people would now be required to connect with each other and work together in ways they had not previously. This change was more about culture than it was about technology. The senior team embraced this and began to align with the true purpose of the transformation.
In what became an effective process to change the culture, we met with the senior team every two weeks to engage them with the project and resolve issues and risks where necessary. In a few meetings, we performed a “deep-dive” into the changes that were underway. These “deep-dives” focused on changes in work process and human interaction. We stopped talking as much about the technology. As a result, these senior leaders began going back to their own teams and talking about the change in different terms. They also became much more supportive of the change.
Ultimately, this initiative was successful, with the senior management team calling it one of the most successful projects in the history of the institution.
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Action steps to align on purpose and outcomes:
- Identify the purpose of the change and specify business outcomes. How will the change improve market share, customer satisfaction, and the bottom line?
- Relate the change to how it improves the employee experience, such as how it helps working teams or individual employees.
- Get real about the implications of the change. The case above illustrates how a technology change was actually a cultural change. Think through the consequences of changes you are considering.
- Together, identify how each leader and her function will support the change. Be clear on the role of each and help them hold each other accountable to drive the change.
- Hold regular status meetings to engage with the progress of the team and visibly resolve issues
3. State the WIIFM in terms of behavior outcomes
In one engagement, I was asked to help a large community college through a large-scale transformation. It would impact 30,000 students, 2,000 faculty, and nearly all the college’s administrative staff.
The faculty’s involvement would be required to make this transformation successful, but the faculty was unionized and resistant to this project. There had been long-standing challenges between the college and the union. College leaders and I discussed how to win them over. We attended one of their meetings, presented the benefits of the transformation, and began to enroll them in the transformation.
We met resistance firsthand. They expressed several concerns. One issue they highlighted was a lack of day-to-day support to transform. It was necessary, and something the project team missed on the project plan. We met and overcame their resistance by doing two simple things. First, we listened. Actively. Then, we acted on it. We followed through.
The faculty union leaders became legitimizers—a term I prefer over resisters. They made the transformation legitimate for their peers. We established faculty teams to guide the implementation. Faculty members gladly joined these teams at the encouragement of the union leadership. Interestingly, the faculty implementation was one of the most successful elements of the transformation.
Action steps to identify WIIFM and integrate it into your transformation:
- Ask yourself, who are the legitimizers to the transformation?
- Seek them out with an open mind. Learn what they have to say.
- Incorporate their feedback into your transformation.
- Enroll them to help drive the implementation and sustainability.
- Celebrate successes with them. Unsparingly give credit.
What it takes to drive change
Everyday organizations drive transformational change. Many are challenged with the ability to be successful. Others do it well. I have found these three steps provide the foundation for the organization to be successful.
- Building a team that trusts and challenges each other is just the beginning. Here’s where culture is first impacted. They set the standard for the rest of the team.
- Aligning on the purpose in terms of outcomes. Clarity will drive speed of adoption and is a critical ingredient to changing the culture.
- The simple truth is that to overcome resistance employees must be engaged to help implement the change. Learn about the resistance and convert this into benefits, or WIIFM, for the employees.
This article was first published on Human Synergistics.