August 2012

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletterJoAnn Hackos

Changing your Organization’s Culture

Everyone admits—culture changes are difficult. Behaviors that represent an organization’s culture are often the product of many years and many practices that were not only acceptable but were actually rewarded. So, what do you do as a manager when you recognize that the culture of your organization is stymieing your efforts to foster change?

In their Harvard Business Review article, “Cultural Change That Sticks,” Jon Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley examine instances of both successful and unsuccessful attempts at cultural change and provide a set of five principles that can guide successful change. Their research focuses on “the development and application of innovative ideas for organizational culture and change.”

The authors demonstrate that senior management often approaches change head-on, without analyzing the resistance that is likely to occur when the change runs counter to the established cultural norms of the company. I’ve seen the same happen in information-development organizations, especially when a new manager embraces an initiative like content management without recognizing the resistance that the established culture will mount. You arrive with lots of good ideas—lowering costs, improving quality, promoting a reuse strategy—and quickly find that traditional approaches to work prove incompatible with your vision of the future.

Yet, we also know that cultures do evolve for the better, and sometimes for the worse. With the right approach, real change does happen. It’s best to understand the cultural forces at work and find ways to work with them if you hope to be successful.

Let’s look at the five principles and think about how they apply to information development, especially at a time when

customers and our own companies are asking for a considerable number of changes to our work practices.

Principle 1–Match Strategy and Culture

Whatever strategy you propose for changing how your organization functions, you must ensure that you have taken into account the strengths and capacity for resistance to your organization’s culture.

Ask yourself why you want to change the existing culture:

  • Do you have an information-development team that values independent workers who can complete their projects on their own?
  • Do you also value the ability of your team members to meet all their deadlines without asking for assistance?
  • Is it a good strategy to tackle both project independence and deadline focus at the same time?

By trying to understand the culture in place and focusing on a specific business reason to change a specific aspect of the culture, you are much more likely to be successful. If you start off with a vague laundry list of cultural traits that you want to change, you’ll likely face considerable resistance.

Principle 2–Focus on a Few Critical Shifts in Behavior

For the 2012 Best Practices conference in September, we emphasize the process of changing the behaviors of an organization and its people, of course. Speakers focus on difficult but successful cultural changes that they have accomplished or are in the midst of working on. Their presentations follow the conference theme, The Power of Habit. Although not all organizational behaviors that we want to change are habits, the habits that your organizational culture fosters will be challenging.

Katzenbach and colleagues recommend that you carefully study your organization’s behaviors as they are today. Then, develop a well-formed picture of what your organization would look like if the behaviors changed in the way you hope in order to meet your business objectives.

The authors suggest that you ask your team members questions like these:

  • If we had the kind of culture we aspire to, in pursuit of the strategy we have chosen, what kinds of new behaviors would be common?
  • And what ingrained behaviors would be gone?

Let’s say that your team values individual performance which means they prefer to work alone on their projects and are suspicious of using content written by others. Yet, in your new business strategy, you believe it is essential to promote collaboration among the team members. You would like to build a culture where team members work closely together to decide what content is needed and share the development effort in building the solution.

If you were able to build such a culture, what would it look like? How would the information planning process change? Would people communicate more or differently or both? How would they show that they valued the contributions of all their colleagues? Would they seek out individuals with particular expertise to write certain kinds of information? For example, would the most product-knowledgeable individuals become responsible for all the conceptual information rather than have bits of it written by everyone?

The authors recommend seeking out what they call “exemplars” in your team. Exemplars are people who are able to motivate others. Ask them to model the behaviors that you want everyone to learn. If they are successful, they’ll ensure those more reluctant to change that the changes might be both beneficial and acceptable.

GM was able to increase innovation among team members simply because the exemplars began to compliment colleagues on innovative work. The employees started a “gold star” program to recognize colleagues who were taking risks and openly exchanging ideas. The recognition program reinforced a major cultural change.

Principle 3–Honor the Strengths of Your Existing Culture

If you’ve followed Principle 1, you’ve carefully surveyed your team members, conducted individual interviews, and made careful observations so that you understand the weaknesses of your organization’s culture. From the same data, you should also be able to understand the strengths.

Consider the strengths you can build upon, the ones that will help you achieve your goals. If you have a team of independent performers, are there ways you can honor their individuality by giving them responsibility for elements of the change process?

Information developers often express concern that they are meeting the needs of their readers. At the same time, they admit that they know far too little about those customers. They want customers to appreciate their work and use the products successfully, but they believe that deadline pressures stand in the way of knowing customers better.

If you want to increase customer understanding, you need to find ways to make customer interactions possible and facilitate communication with customers. You need to provide time in the schedule for key contributors to interact with and study customer information needs without jeopardizing schedules. By honoring the commitment to deadlines and to customer service, you will be much more successful in building on existing strengths rather than tearing them down.

Principle 4–Integrate Formal and Informal Interventions

It’s easy to write a new set of rules and regulations that everyone is supposed to follow. These might include new style guides and authoring guidelines or a new information-development flow chart. These days they are likely to include new tools and technology that everyone is supposed to adopt immediately. But formal mechanisms alone are unlikely to be successful. I often see teams that have purchased a content management system, only to discover that no one actually understands how to use it to achieve the original strategic goals.

Consider what informal methods you can use to encourage change. Find people who will influence others if they are successful and recruit them for a pilot project. Encourage managers to have informal discussions with team members, exchange emails, promote social activities, and encourage people to talk about the changes that are occurring and how they are responding. Seek out information about concerns and find ways to respond to them. One manager reported that she had to hold one-on-one instruction sessions with team members to help them understand how to transform the information they produced to meet with new scenario-oriented strategy. Another held fun-filled events in which everyone worked on specific text samples to make them more user friendly.

Principle 5–Measure and Monitor Cultural Evolution

How will you know if you’re making progress toward the new culture that is essential to your business success? Is the team moving ahead slowly but successfully? Are there instances of backsliding to old behaviors? What practices should you put in place to measure and monitor the change you want?

Katzenbach and colleagues recommend several areas that should get your attention:

  • Have key people in several areas begun to behave differently, according to the changes you’re hoping for? If you’re focusing on collaboration, do you find that an increasing percentage of team members are exhibiting collaborative behaviors? In
    six months or a year, how many teams are successfully working together to build content?
  • Have you put specific milestones in place to monitor? At the end of the first project, for example, have team members divided the responsibilities and produced shared content? Has the number of people still producing entire books on their own gone down?
  • Have you surveyed team members to find if their feelings about the new initiatives have become more accepting? How do their views now compare to their views at the beginning of your plan.

The most difficult things to change are feelings and beliefs. Only by meeting with people, asking the right questions, and encouraging ad-hoc discussions of the change will you get a sense that something positive is slowly taking place.

Tackle Cultural Change From the First

We know that many change initiatives start with purchasing new technology. As we guide teams through implementations of DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), we stress the importance of developing small pilot projects that demonstrate success. We ask those involved in the pilots to become the leaders of the next round of projects so that they help more team members understand what needs to happen. These early actions result in more successful change efforts because key people serve as exemplars and help to influence others.

Understanding your organization’s culture and acknowledging that cultural change is difficult must come at the beginning of your project rather than at the end, when you’re desperate.

Focus on a few critical behaviors to change from the beginning. Engage your very best people and help them be successful. Know that culture changes slowly. You need to keep the pressure up. But you are most likely to be successful if you work with rather than against your existing culture. Promote gradual but measured evolution of the existing cultural strengths. It will help you to reach your goals and put your new strategy in place. CIDMIconNewsletter




Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley

Cultural Change That Sticks

Harvard Business Review

July–August 2012, pp. 110-117