Creating a culture for change in business

Managing change in a business is complex. It needs a clear framework, processes and above all, clear and timely communications. Everyone needing to change must feel connected to (and supportive of) the reasons for the change. It’s not only complex, it is very hard to achieve and sustain.

For many businesses, especially those without the budget to engage with change specialists, change projects often fail. A McKinsey & Company report found that of the organisational change projects that fail, the majority failed early due to a lack of leadership alignment and a culture that wasn’t aligned with the new strategy.

And that McKinsey finding got me thinking, for change to really stick you need great leadership and a great culture. Specifically, you need curious leadership and a nimble culture. A workplace where the leaders openly look for ways to enhance, innovate and ‘tweak’ (as I like to call it) by asking all their people to challenge the status quo and always ask ‘…but why’ creates a nimble group of people with a genuine openness to do things differently.

If everyone within a business is encouraged to respectfully challenge the ways of working, and if healthy debate is allowed to follow with a good cross section of the people within the business, then what results is not only a general acceptance of what needs to change, but also why it does.

And the ‘why’ is they key to connecting the relevance for everyone. The natural resistance to change diminishes as a result, and if championed by a key person outside of leadership then the ‘change’ isn’t viewed as another directive from the top but as something that the people need.

But isn’t this obvious? I think most people would agree that curious leaders create nimble cultures and a flexible workforce. I just think a lot of us have stopped being curious.

We (as in humans) have an innate desire to know and to understand which sadly diminishes as we grow older. I for one was very curious when I was a child but that curiosity wasn’t really supported. At home my questions were often responded to with the typical “because I said so”, and at school I found my hand (very straight and doing little jumps) was mostly overlooked once the teachers realised I never had the answers just more questions.

And now as an adult, the space in my head that I once had for “….but why” and “… I wonder” has been replaced with a lot of voices helping me navigate through each day; telling me what I need to do and how I need to do it, and there just simply isn’t any room for the why.

How can we bring curiosity back?

We, as leaders, need to create formal pathways for curiosity. Leaders, in all businesses have to promote a culture where curiosity and challenge are encouraged. We need to ‘set the stage’ and provide the freedom for our people to question and challenge (in some cases) our work as leaders. Leaders need to really listen to what our people have to say and put our egos to the side and encourage respectful and open discussion.

According to Evan Hackel ‘Why Curiosity is the Greatest Leadership Trait of All’, the greatest leaders are more interested in listening to others than listening to themselves, are constantly looking for new and better solutions and are open to being proven wrong.

In trying to create a curious culture, here are some of the things I have rolled out that appear to be well received:

    1. I have created ‘thought leadership groups’ made up of people from anywhere in the business, at any level, that are selected not just on their output but by their strength of character. They need to be able to challenge and respectfully say to me “Alysia, no, I think you’re wrong”.
    2. I do a lot of phone screening when we are recruiting. At this point I share our purpose, our values and most importantly what is expected of people who join our team. This always includes the expectation that if successful, they must come with an open mind and think (especially during a handover and on-boarding/training) if they can create a better way of working. Our processes are not necessarily right and can always be tweaked, and the best opportunity to enhance them is when a fresh set of eyes is reviewing them.
    3. We have an area in our office (a large post-it permanently stuck on a wall!) where people can contribute (anonymously if desired) ideas, thoughts and general feedback. These can be posed as statements or questions and I have one post-it that has as its heading “If we had no budget, resource or time constraints, wouldn’t it be amazing if……”

Creating a culture that can support and sustain change can’t happen overnight. The right culture; one that’s open-minded, positive and nimble has to be driven constantly by the leaders and promoted throughout the entire business. With the right culture, change projects wont been seen as complex change initiatives, but will merely be part of business as usual.

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