Epic Culture Change Failure...A Personal Story

November 29, 2015

 

Research has shown that 70% of efforts to transform an organisation (including its culture) ultimately end in failure.  As a change leader and manager I have led or been part of a number of successful change efforts.  However, in today’s post, I want to share with you my most epic culture change failure ever!  And it is epic because it spans years, continents and country cultures.

 

What do I mean by culture change?  I mean examining the “way we do things around here” and then actively working to change the way things are being done.  In other words, deliberately breaking old habits and putting new, better suited habits in their place...better suited, that is, to our vision for the future of our organisation. 

 

The term “organisation” as defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary is “a group of people who work together in an organised way for a shared purpose”.  I have written about organisational change in other posts (Making Change Easier and Change Starts With You), but for purposes of this post I am going to use my family as an example of an organisation. 

 

For those of you who might question whether a family fits the definition of “organisation", I would argue that raising two children to be productive members of society certainly meets the above definition of a shared purpose!

 

A CLASH OF CULTURES...

My husband and I are from two different cultures and after we were married, I chose to live in his country as opposed to making him live in mine.  I have never regretted this decision.  However, I very rapidly discovered that despite the fact that we both speak English, our understanding of what constitutes an “acceptable way to behave around here” aka manners, differed to a surprisingly significant degree!

 

In the culture my husband grew up in, it was considered perfectly acceptable (or so he claims) to both burp and fart in public.  In the culture that I grew up in...heavily reinforced by my mother and grandmother...if you did so dastardly a thing as to make rude body noises in public you were expected to sincerely apologise...in abject tones of embarrassment...to anyone within earshot!

 

So in the best possible change management "speak", here was my problem; my husband both burped and farted in public and believed this behaviour was perfectly acceptable.  I, on the other hand, wanted to see a bit of culture change where public emissions of body noises were concerned.

 

And just how does THAT fit with organisational culture change?  Isn't that just a power struggle between two people?!  I would argue that although the power component does play a role, culture change, whether in a family or an organisation is all about working towards a shared vision of how things could be.  It also means giving up just a little bit of that power and control so it can happen and that applies to change leaders just as much as it does to change followers.

 

At that time in my life, I was unaware of the existing change management frameworks and all the writing that has been done about how to successfully make changes in an organisation.  I subsequently studied about and applied many change management approaches and techniques to this particular issue, some more successfully than others. 

 

LEADING CULTURE CHANGE

One of the most useful change management articles I have ever read is by John P. Kotter.  His thoughts on “Leading Change:  Why Transformation Efforts Fail”, published in the Harvard Business Review, lays out the eight things that organisations have to get right if they want their change efforts to succeed.  In the following sections, I show you stept by step, based on Kotter's eight points, how my approach to family culture change succeeded...or didn't.

Error 1:  Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency

Hmmm.  I definitely thought there was a great sense of urgency.  It was highly embarrassing being out in public and suddenly having these enormous rude sounds ripping through the air for all and sundry to hear.  Unfortunately for me my husband couldn’t see WHY that was a problem!  Whenever I scolded he would just say “better out than in” and go back to whatever he was doing before I so rudely interrupted him. 

 

Error 2:  Not Creating A Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition

Fortunately, I discovered that I had an ally in my mother-in-law.  She definitely did not buy into the “better out than in” method and sometimes...not so quietly...would ask who could possibly have raised my husband because it couldn’t have been her!  We were both quite adamant that things needed to change.  Slowly, between the two of us, we managed to convince my husband that he needed to pay attention and start thinking about how he might go about better managing his propensity of letting loose in public.

 

Error 3:  Lacking A Vision

The vision for the future was VERY clear!  There would be NO burping or farting in public and for the odd accidental mishap, there would be heartfelt and embarrassed apologies.  In other words, my definition of what constituted good manners would prevail!

 

Error 4:  Undercommunicating The Vision By A Factor Of Ten

In retrospect I must confess I struggled with this one.  There is only so much gentle reminding you can do without turning into a frightul nag.  Since I intensely hate being nagged myself, I don’t like to do it to others and think it is counterproductive.  At what point does communicating the vision for change become irritating and just shuts people down?

 

However, research has showed that change leaders have to communicate, communicate and communicate some more, to the point where they are sick of hearing the sound of their own voice.  And even then, it won’t be enough communication. 

 

I distinctly remember the horror I felt when, during one change effort I was leading within a business organisation, I came across someone who didn’t seem to know anything about the changes…at all.  Nada.  Zip.  It was like being on a different planet.

 

 

When I gently probed as to why they didn’t know anything about the changes, this person blithely replied that they hadn’t been at the original change kickoff meeting.  Nor had they bothered to read any of the communications that came out about the change.  Why?!  Well they had been head down and tail up delivering something and didn’t have time to read my emails and newsletters!  

 

Error 5:  Not Removing Obstacles To The New Vision

In hindsight, this was a big “fail”.  “Wind” doesn’t just appear out of nowhere; something was causing my darling husband to sound like a sputtering tea kettle or out of control whoopee cushion.  I could have experimented with the food we normally ate, to see whether I could identify the underlying causes.  Or I could have insisted that he undergo some medical examination to identify what the cause of all that “wind” was.  More and more I was relying on the "scold and hope" method for getting change, rather than exploring and resolving the underlying issues.

 

Error 6:  Not Systematically Planning For and Creating Short Term Wins

Systematically planning for and acutally accomplishing short term wins was somewhat problematic. The word "systematic" in conjunction with our culture change situation was something of an oxymoron.  Any "system" tended to be aimed at embedding the culture change in our children.

 

Unfortunately, my husband and I have very different approaches to life in some respects.  For example, when it comes to cooking, he is very much in the school of “measure everything twice and follow the recipe exactly”.  I, however, believe in the “try it and hope” method.  If you know the rules (the recipes) well enough you can modify those recipes to suit the materials at hand.  For example, I came up with a delightfully purple chocolate cake by mixing in pureed beetroot.  I couldn’t understand my husband’s dismay at the colour.  The cake was delicious!

 

My approach to cooking was a source of contention over the years as we both attempted to impart our different methods of food preparation to our children.  Results were mixed.  For the “follow the recipe” approach, one child managed to make pancakes with 1/4 cup of baking powder instead of 1/4 teaspoon.  For the “try it and hope” method, the other child couldn’t find any coconut for the cake he was baking, so he used rice instead…

 

However, when it came to my culture change efforts, my approach to cooking actually produced at least one very good short term win.  After a particularly creative cooking session on my part, we attended a public church service.  Partway through an intense period of silent reflection, the deep stillness was broken by very loud and very deliberate fartish rumblings from one of the children. 

 

From that point on my husband supported my efforts to ensure that our children did not burp or fart in public.  These well mannered children still use variants of our two different cooking methods, but they do not offend the public's ear with unwanted noises…at least where their parents can hear them.

 

Error 7:  Declaring Victory Too Soon

The years zipped by and all had been going well for quite some time.  My darling had his bodily noises under control and on those (semi) rare occasions where one escaped, managed to produce a suitably contrite sounding “sorry”.

 

But alas!  Two weeks ago we were wandering through the National Rhododendron Gardens.  I was quietly videoing the beautiful flowers so I could share them on YouTube.  As I was focusing the video camera in on one particularly beautiful tree, my husband wandered up behind me and let rip...long, rolling and thunderous, with no apology. 

 

And there it was...captured for all posterity, my epic culture change fail!

 

Error 8:  Not Anchoring Changes In The Corporation’s Culture. 

I obviously failed to anchor those changes that I had so carefully focused on over the years.  The changes in behaviour my husband made were superficial and therefore, not lasting.  He obviously hadn’t taken them on board and owned them as his own. 

Summary

The research literature is full of examples where organisations have seen their hard won culture change gains unravel.  When the key people driving the changes leave, the effort to keep the momentum going can slow down or even stop.  If the people in the organisation don’t own the new way of being or haven’t internalised the changes, they will quickly revert back to the old ways of doing things.

 

So what are my conclusions?  Well, some other change guru is going to have to take our family’s culture change challenge on.  I have given up. 

 

After all what’s a noise?  As long as I walk upwind I’ll be fine…

 

 

 

 

 

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