Question: How best to communicate for culture change?

As engineering contractors to DoD, our company worked primarily in high-technology research projects.

With sequestration, our "research lab" culture is no longer practical. We are trying to rapidly commercialize existing products we have built over the years, and be bottom-line focussed on new project approvals.

This is a big shift from our past culture, where people had more flexibility in running their own projects.

How can Human Resources and the leadership team drive communication for this change in a structured way?

5 Expert Insights

Shifting a culture to be more responsive to the needs of the market is a big job. No matter what you do, it will take time. The best way to proceed is to engage the people in the organization and have them participate in the process.

I do not believe that HR or the Leadership Team can create the conditions by communicating so that this change will come through.

I am not sure how many employees do you have in your company and whether it is possible to engage them all at the same time in the process of hearing from the management team about the needs for the change and the Leadership team allowing the employees to ask questions about why and how. The latter will be only possible if your culture is such that people will be comfortable asking questions. You might have to engage an outside individual to help you with that.

I have managed the culture change in the company I was president of, and have a lot of related experience in this subject. To be able to help you I would have to know much more about your company.

I may have seen this movie before.  It appears you are engineering a culture shift (a qualitative change) when the situation requires a culture transformation (a conversion of one structure into another related structure.)  It sounds as if the leadership team has created a new business strategy for commercializing the unique high-technology you have developed.  However, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (P. Drucker).  

In working with cultural issues over the years, I’ve come to define it very precisely: “It is the employee’s most successful way of thinking, feeling and behaving.”  The culture required to support your commercialization strategy is vastly different than your “research lab” culture!

Here is the reality that defeats all but 15% of these cultural change efforts (as reported by McKinsey): management cannot Directly control the how employees think, feel and behave (without coercion).  Management must create an environmental ecosystem – a working environment – that will evolve the desired transformation in the way the employees think, feel and behave.  (People do not resist change as much as resist being forced to change.)

In my experience most management efforts to “communicate” a new culture is experienced by the employ-ees as coercion and creates a dynamic known as “rank & revenge.”  Stonewalling and infectious negativity permeates the culture.  If this direct approach works at all – 85% of these efforts fail – it takes longer than the indirect approach.

This is a tough one, but the reality is that things change.  Try the 3M / Google approach - 10-20% of the employees' time is their own to work on their own pet projects, but the remainder they have schedules and ROI to consider.  I'll bet that those "pet" projects end up having more of a financial impact than do the other projects.  :)

I agree with Bill Shirley.  The focus should be on "What model and process will we use to transform the organization?", not just on communication (although that plays a critical role).  Transformation for an organization is like chrysalis for a caterpillar.

In our view, transformation is something that one can only do for oneself, although conditions that with high probability will produce that result can be created.  Our process (in very high level steps)
- Create the business case so the leadership is motivated and takes responsibility for the transformation (things will look worse before they will look better)
- Create an inspiring future that calls for the transformation (we call this true strategic planning - 3-5 year tactical planning is insufficient).
- Provide training of the skill set needed in the new future, which incorporates the skill set of communication and transformation.  Provide this to the leadership first.
- Support the use of the new skills in accomplishing the near-term milestones of the strategic plan

Effective communication, particularly speaking looking through the eyes of the other, is an important skill in this process for all the leaders and managers.

"How can Human Resources and the leadership team drive communication for this change in a structured way?" This is an interesting question and my peers have the right insights, particularly Bill.

Engineering the change won't work, and, depending on what sort of HR department you have, they probably won't be able to do much, just as you can't really 'drive communication'.

What you describe is a culture change project and in order to embark on one of these, you need the leadership to be aligned around understanding the current situation at a systemic level and then aligned about how they want things to be different.  Then they will need to align on how to get from the current place to the desired place, and communication will be just one part, an important part, but nevertheless just one part of the behaviors, mindsets and attitudes needed.