The price of a 'singular priority' focus

31 Oct 2013, 2:51 pm

An article from the latest edition of our Cultural Intelligence newsletter

As a reader of this newsletter, you are probably aware that one way in which we gain an understanding of the prevailing culture in a company is by conducting what we call a UGRs Stock Take. In essence this involves people reflecting on “the way we do things around here", then anonymously completing that sentence to “lead-in sentences". These can include for example “around here, when a customer complaints..." or “around here, when it comes to working with other departments...".

A recent UGRs Stock Take we undertook with a company included a lead-in sentence “Around here, when in unsafe act occurs...".

This followed on the back of the company investing a great deal of time and energy into ensuring that safety became a priority.

And it paid dividends.

Safety issues have declined dramatically, and all staff are aware of, and committed to working safely.

One of the responses to the UGRs Stock Take however, tells us a great deal about safety, but also about other aspects of the company.

The response we're referring to here is as follows: "Around here, when an unsafe access occurs, it's about the only thing taken seriously".

Clearly, the leaders of this company have pushed a very strong message throughout the organisation: Safety will not be compromised.

Our take-out from this single message however is that, at least from one person's perspective, on other cultural issues there is a lack of consistency and a great deal of compromise.

If felt more widely, this is a reflection of a common syndrome seen in “singular priority" companies. While they may not publicly admit to this, we've seen many organisations that are driven by a singular priority. It might be safety. It might be increased sales. It might be cost reductions. Whatever the single issue, these syndromes are highly dangerous because they create cultures that accept compromise in the interests of pursuing that single priority.

As an example, if safety is the only thing taken seriously in a company, then how people treat one another is of secondary importance. Whether or not teams perform well is also of secondary importance. And whether there is an appetite for creativity and innovation is also of secondary importance.

By definition, that's the consequence of singular priority companies.

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Complaints management 101

1 Oct 2013, 12:05 am

I'm a Diamond member of the Hilton Honors Programme, which so far as I' aware is the highest level of loyalty membership.

A couple of weeks ago, I stayed at a Hilton Hotel in Melbourne. During the afternoon on the day I checked out, the hotel left a voice message for me, requesting that I call back as my credit card had apparently been declined.

When I heard the message later that night, I was very suprised at this news. There was no reason this should have happened.

The following afternoon, I called our bank. I explained what had happened, and they were able to tell me that the Hilton had entered the incorrect expiry date which led to the credit card being declined. Apparently they had tried the credit card again that morning, this time entering the correct expiry date, and the transaction had been approved.

A couple of days later, I was at the Hilton web site and noticed that I had earned '0' points for this hotel stay. I also discovered I was unable to print any receipts for any of my stays from my account web page.

I rang the Hilton and explained what had occured, pointing out that the hotel had made an error when they entered my credit card details. And that's where things got interesting...

The agent on the phone explained that I would have to contact the hotel directly to rectify the problem.

With a huge amount of restraint, I calmly told the agent that I figured I had done enough - the problem, after all, squarely lay at the feet of the hotel staff. Yet after having contacted my bank, then having to ring the Hilton, I was required to do more?

Incredibly, the agent was at a loss as to what to do and passed me on to a manager. After once again explaining the whole story, and on my strong recommendation, this manager agreed he would 'own' the problem on my behalf.

That was around a week ago.

Today I called the Hilton again (their support number as provided on the web site didn't work, so I had to go through the Reservations number!). I reported that I was still unable to print any receipts for any of my stays.

The agent responded by saying that to get receipts, customers needed to contact the relevant hotel. She confirmed that there was a technical problem that was still being worked on at the web site.

I then asked when it was expected that this problem would be fixed.

"I don't know' was the response.

Amazing stuff...

I'm constantly surprised/bemused/disappointed at how badly complaints are managed. And I wonder whether the bigger the organisation, the more inept they are at managing compaints.

Is that your experience?

Is poor compiant management simply a function of company size?

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Is this the biggest risk with culture change?

29 Sep 2013, 5:08 pm

An article from our Cultural Intelligence newsletter

When we work with organisations with a view to enabling a more positive, productive culture, there are two 'streams' of activities that we recommend.

One stream of activity relates to the implementation of improvement initiatives based on an assessment of the current culture. We believe leaders need to consider what kind of culture is needed to ensure theirs is a great place to work, and also to ensure the organisation is highly successful into the future. Once this aspirational culture has been agreed upon, it makes sense to determine what the current culture is like in relation to those aspirational attributes. Clearly, there will be issues with the current culture, so improvement initiatives need to be identified and implemented.

The second stream of activity that we recommend relates to the aspirational culture. We encourage organisations to get maximum involvement in crafting the positive UGRs (unwritten ground rules) by which people would like to characterise the organisation (linked to the aspiration cultural attributes). Those agreed positive UGRs then need to become a key driver - clear messages need to be sent that this is where the organisation is headed, and leaders are serious about working to that end.
But there is a big risk with all of this.

We call this the 'projectisation' risk. Our view is that if culture change is 'projectised' then it is doomed to fail.

Signals need to be sent to everyone in the organisation that there is a strong and serious push to improve the culture. And many of the signals will be gleaned from the two streams of activity we've described above.
However, if culture change is seen merely as another 'project' then we have a fatal flaw. That's because another 'project' can be seen as simply competing with the already busy workload most people experience. And if there is competition for people's attention between revenue producing operational issues, and this 'soft' issue called culture, then most of us can predict where energy will be directed.

So what's the point? The two streams of activity that we recommend are necessary but not sufficient for culture change. Leaders and staff need to 'get' the fact that culture change requires individuals to question their own behaviours in fundamental ways. Culture change is a way of being, not simply a list of activities.

To projectise culture change is to condemn it.

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Changing culture when senior leaders are driven by costs

1 Sep 2013, 7:50 pm

From the latest edition of our Cultural Intelligence newsletter...

One of the most common questions that we receive goes something like this:  How do you undertake cultural change when senior management is driven by cost outcomes, not people outcomes?

People in many organisations are grappling with the issue that they would like to see the culture improve – a view not necessarily shared by senior management.

So if this is a concern to you, what can you do?

Our starting point here is to say that senior managers have a lot on their plate! They have various stakeholders to which they need to be accountable (boards, shareholders, other senior managers, customers, middle managers, employees) and as a consequence, they are being pressured in different directions. So sometimes, culture won’t be on their priority list – a fact that shouldn’t surprise given the competing pressures.

This doesn’t mean that culture shouldn’t be a priority – because culture and UGRs (unwritten ground rules) impact so significantly on performance, it should be right up there!

Why isn’t it a priority?

So a key question that needs to be asked is this: Why is it that senior managers do not place culture as a priority?

We think there are three logical reasons for this:

  • They don’t believe culture is important – despite them having been exposed to notions of culture and UGRs
They’ve been supportive of the importance of culture, but they have become so busy that other things have got onto their agenda
They are simply not aware of the importance of culture and its impact on performance

So what can we do?

What we do depends on the reasons why senior managers are not supporting a focus on culture.

If senior managers don’t believe culture is important, despite them having been exposed to notions of culture and UGRs, then we have a problem! One thing you can do in this instance is to work on the culture in areas over which you have influence or control. In many organisations, people are ably working on the culture in areas over which they have influence or control and they are making a difference. If you can’t get support from senior management, you can still make a difference!

If senior managers believe in culture but it has slipped off their radar because of other priorities, then this is relatively easy to address. You can be proactive, and come up with ideas to re-focus people back on UGRs and culture, and present these ideas to the senior managers concerned. Most likely, they’ll appreciate your forward thinking!

If senior managers are not aware of the importance of culture, then a great place to start is to undertake a 'UGRs Stock Take' - which is our approach to understanding the prevailing culture. We can help you frame the Stock Take so that it is linked to cultural attributes or existing Values that are critical to the success of the organisation. Provide the results to the senior managers, with recommended action steps. We can guarantee this will gain their attention and they will appreciate the power of UGRs and culture!

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Does expedience rule?

1 Jul 2013, 11:45 pm

If you improved workplace culture by, say 5%, would everyone in your team feel it? Would a 5% improvement in organisational culture have such an impact that most people in your organisation would notice a difference? We’d guess the answer to these questions is ‘no’.
That’s because culture is such a complex thing – so complex that direct cause-effect relationships cannot usually be observed.
A slight improvement in culture might mean people are slightly happier, and that unhappy people are less unhappy. And in the medium to long term, this improvement would probably add substantially to bottom line results. But in the busy-ness of day to day work, immediate impacts might not be felt within an organisation.

That’s in contrast to other business initiatives that are implemented for a direct, observable impact. The appointment of a new leader, or the implementation of a new IT system, or the trial of a new marketing strategy are examples of changes that impact directly and unequivocally on people and organisations.
Because of the complex cause-effect relationship between culture and results, there is a very real risk that expedience takes over. Expedience relates to taking the most direct, but not necessarily the most effective action. Under an ‘expedient’ mindset, short cuts are taken in the interest of getting to an end-point. And it’s possible that expedience might drive decisions that compromise culture, but for which there are no direct, observable impacts, at least in the short term.
In our presentations, we sometimes show a short real-life video of a leader in action. She is portrayed in three different contexts working with her people, and it is clear for all to see that this leader is not a ‘model’ leader! She has an abrupt, authoritarian, and barnstorming style.
After showing the video, we ask people to consider whether this leader’s style works. This is a question that generates great debate!
We don’t mean to play on words here, but the answer to whether or not this leader’s style ‘works’ is, of course, ‘Yes’!
Her leadership style clearly gets results.
However, the key issue is whether it ‘works’ as well as it could, and of course the answer to that is a resounding ‘No’!
Under this person’s leadership, there are some extremely strong and negative unwritten ground rules (UGRs) that are created, one of which includes ‘Around here, it’s not worth giving extra effort, as no-one recognises it’.
And this is the problem of expedience. Expedience gets results, but importantly, it doesn’t get the best results. Unfortunately, expedience occurs in business areas that are so complex, that often the individuals involved are incapable of understanding that better results are possible. So expedience, continues to rule.

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Sorry, it's their protocol...

23 Jun 2013, 9:58 pm

I just received a call from a lady representing Telstra, our phone and internet provider.

The agent explained the call was to see whether we'd like to switch from the current analogue system to the new digital system for our land line. I queried why we'd want to do this, and she explained that call quality would be superior, internet connectivity would be better, and there would be no charge to switch, or to have the technicians come to our premises to enable the switch.

Sounded good to me!

She then asked if I would authorise her accessing our account details, which I did. I provided my details to confirm who I was, and she then went through and shared with me all the details of our current accounts (which I already knew).

She then asked me to hold for a moment, so she could check whether our line was 'ready' for the digital conversion.

A short while later she returned to say that the conversion wasn't able to be done at our exchange as of now, so she would put our details on a list to be notified immediately this was available.

Before she hung up, I wanted to pose a question to her:

"Can I ask you why you didn't screen my number first to see whether our line was able to do the switch, before totally wasting 10 minutes time for each of us"

"I'm sorry Mr Simpson, but that Telstra's protocol" came the response. "There's nothing I can really do about it" she lamented

So apparently, a 'protocol' makes it right and a 'protocol' can't be changed.


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A sign of a 'lost' culture

4 Jun 2013, 6:12 pm

This coming September, Australians will be participating in an election for the Federal government.

As in most developed countries, political opinion polls are regularly conducted by various groups and shared through various medai outlets.

A couple of days ago, the latest major opinion poll results were splashed across the front pages of most newspapers of note. The incumbent Labor government had slipped even further behind - foreshadowing a potential wipeout for the government come September. For readers outside of Australia, I should point out that for a couple of years or more, the opinion poll trending has been downward for the government, so while this was bad news for them, it was not unexpected.

On the day following the release of the opinion poll results, a morning breakfast television show interviewed a well known Labor politician, Joel Fitzgibbon, which in turn created headlines. Part of the interview is shown in the video clip below.

While Fiztgibbon got a lot of laughs from what he did, it was nonetheless, significant.

In essence, Fitgibbon was making a joke out of what he was 'supposed' to be doing.

When this happens in organisations it can spell the death knell. If Values, or change initiatives, or carrying out decisions become the butt of a joke, there is a good chance the culture is toxic and in need of some substantial re-orientation.

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Does the existence of factions within organisations impact on the culture?

29 May 2013, 10:37 pm

An article from the latest edition of the Cultural Intelligence newsletter...
Within any reasonably sized organisation there are factions or ‘in-groups’ that develop. These are groups of people that are formed often on the basis of sharing time together.  Any one person will likely belong to a number of different groups. One group might be based on a person’s work team, or a subset of people within their work team. It’s worth noting there are ‘factions within factions’.
Another group might be people from different work areas who are at a similar level of seniority and who ‘connect’ with one another. Yet another might be people from different work areas across different levels of seniority who connect with one another based on similar interests or personality types.

It’s natural for these groups or factions to evolve. When people ‘connect’ it’s makes sense they want to spend time with one another, as they can share their views and opinions safely. People feel comfortable with others in their in-group.
There are some really interesting consequences of factions in the workplace however.
One of the most intriguing is the fact that by virtue of being seen to belong to one faction, people often disqualify themselves from being included in another faction. How does this happen?  It’s a fact of life that some people don’t get on. So, if you are in a faction with a person I don’t like, then I’ll come to the conclusion that I don’t like you as you are connected to that person. Add to this the fact that people in this other faction are probably thinking exactly the same way!
One possible outcome is that groups tend to polarise. And as this happens groups generate their own UGRs (unwritten ground rules).
Obviously, if this gets out of control, it can be really damaging. It can get to a point where teams move from being harmless, through to being uncooperative, through to teams deliberately sabotaging the work of others. If one group has decision makers in it, then others in the same group might receive favours resulting in people in other groups being both envious and resentful.
The bottom line in all this is that negative UGRs about other factions are normally – but not always - borne out of ignorance. Put another way, negativity is often created without knowing people in other factions. 
There’s a really good chance that while groups fail to communicate, negative UGRs will remain.
One strategy we’ve used in organisations to address the issue of factions is to get two work teams together for the sole purpose of helping them understand the value that the other work brings to the organisation and also to consider how the teams might be able to work better together. If you’d like to do this, get the two teams together in a room and deliberately structure it so that one team is NOT doing a formal presentation to the other. Rather, get each team to ask the other team the following questions:
  • Help us to understand the kind of work that you actually do
What gives you greatest grief?
  • What can we do to help you do your job better? 
The last question – 'What can we do to help you do your job better?' – is a really powerful one which should not be skipped over.
In addressing these questions, people might start to understand that people in other factions are not quite as bad as they thought.

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Our culture-improvement project is stalling - what to do?

25 Apr 2013, 4:52 pm

An article from the latest edition of our 'Cultural Intelligence' newsletter

It’s a fact of life that change initiatives will fail in organisations.
In a recent study undertaken in the US by Pivotal Resources, it was found that almost half of the survey 

respondents indicated that a significant number of change projects failed to meet their stated goals.
There are very few change initiatives that are as complex and difficult to achieve as culture change. That means that culture change initiatives often fail.
What about successful change?
  • Let’s for a moment direct our attention to why some change initiatives succeed. We think there are a number of factors that are present in successful change initiatives:
  • There is leader and employee buy-in
  • Leaders talk consistently and positively about the change – so there is high visibility of the change and this is sustained over time
  • People are given regular updates on progress – in fact, there is a sense that people are kept well informed about both problems and successes
  • People across various levels of seniority are asked for, and support the change
  • There is a sense of non-negotiability – people accept the change as a ‘given’, but at the same time, leaders are open to ideas on how the change can be better managed
  • If all of these are present (which happens rarely), then you could say that change is all but guaranteed. If only one or two of these is present, there’s a good chance the change initiative will fail.
So what should we do?
  • If you feel that your culture change initiative is starting to lose ground (or has failed to fly in the first place) there are a number of things you can do:
  • Unless you are in a very senior position, focus your efforts in work areas in which you have influence or control. Don’t waste your time or energy worrying about things you cannot change
  • Review the list we’ve noted above to identify which of these has not been present – is there anything you can do about this? For example, if you sense that people have not been well informed about the culture improvement intiative, is there anything you can do?
  • Get together a group of people whose opinions you respect. Ask them for ideas on ways to re-invigorate the culture-related initiatives
  • Carefully consider what is happening in cases where people are not  living the aspirational culture. We’d be prepared to bet that there are few if any consequences for those people. One way for people to understand that culture change is serious is for them to see that there are consequences for behaviours that breach the aspirational culture. It may be worthwhile considering a range of respectful and appropriate consequences for behaviours that do not reflect the aspirational culture. You might like to try to implement some of these yourself in your dealings with other people. Do this with great care, and make sure you tell people you are motivated by a desire for everyone to be ‘living’ the positive culture!

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Ditch your Values

12 Mar 2013, 11:25 pm

From the latest edition of our Cultural Intelligence newsletter

A recent article (Never sacrifice values for growth) published at begins with the following proposition:
'If your company's values don't inform everything you do--and everything your employees do--you won't be doing it for long.'
We think this is outright wrong.
We've worked with a large number of organisation across all sectors and in many countries, and most of those organisations have had Values Statements. And in most of them, the Values Statements were not lived. Yet these very same organisations continue to function. So unless leader behaviours are in such dramatic and stark contrast to the espoused Values (Enron comes to mind here - their Values were Communication, Respect, Integrity, Excellence!), most organisations can get by without truly living their Values.

We'd hazard a guess that in the vast majority of cases, Values Statements are created with really good intent. And probably soon after they are created, leaders really work at driving those Values. Yet over time, various issues arise that push Values off the agenda. And cynicism builds.
In one financial institution, a manager told us that a high performer was the antithesis of the organisation's Value relating to 'Teamwork'. Yet that staff member's performance was sufficient to cement his position and managers put up with his behaviour.
In one local government council, staff told us of managers who treated people really badly, yet were never rebuked. This was in the face of the one of the organisation's Values relating to 'Respect'. Apparently, the way these managers behaved was just 'the way they were'.
So when it comes to a competition between Values Statements and bottom line performance, or a stand-off between Values Statements and the need to tackle really tough issues, in many cases Values take the back seat.
Our answer to this dilemma? Ditch your Values Statements. If your leaders are not prepared to stand behind your Values, then you're probably worse off for having them. Everyone sees the hypocrisy of Values Statements not being taken seriously.
And after you've thrown out your Values Statements, consider answering this question:
What are the Key Cultural Attributes (KCAs) we need in place to ensure our future success?
In a sense, Values are the broad rules of the game by which we would like all people to play. Because they are so broad, they don't differentiate one organisation from the next. The Values of a mining company can be identical to those of a bank, which in turn can be the same as an aged care service.
We're convinced that organisations need to seriously consider the cultural attributes that need to be in place to ensure future success. That's where KCAs have a huge part to play. In essence, KCAs are the cultural tactics that need to be deployed for an organisation to be successful. Values, of themselves, are not a ticket to success.
So, if your Values are not being taken seriously, we say Ditch Them. Seriously!

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