Embrace the Iceberg: Know What Lies Below to Foster a Pro-Change Culture

Embrace the Iceberg: Know What Lies Below to Foster a Pro-Change Culture

Insights | 07 February 2017

Are all humans hardwired to resist change?

It would seem likely based on the typical corporate caricature. All-too-often, the office worker is perceived as a risk-averse creature for whom even the smallest change is viewed with alarm.

How else could a management fable featuring actual mice as its main characters – the infamous “Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life” – become a runaway international bestseller across 37 languages?

There must be some truth to the stereotype. In fact, companies large and small report stumbling through change all the time. Outdoor clothing maker Patagonia, which has 1,300 global employees distributed among offices in Japan, France and its home-base in the U.S., found that operational complexities were hurting efforts to grow its global brand while staying true to its original mission.

A data-driven effort was made to find out more. A detailed survey among workers and managers revealed the company’s stated goal of fostering innovation and risk-taking was being undermined by a lack of systematic feedback and a general discomfort managing ambiguity.[i]

So if it’s hard for mice, and a challenge for outdoorsy types, surely there are issues with change happening at your workplace right now. Add in that programme and enterprise agility depends on change at their very essence, it’s no surprise leaders are asking with a sense of urgency: How can I manage change most effectively?

There is no single answer, unfortunately. This is one area where academics, consultants, c-level leaders and even rank-and-file managers will quickly diverge. Some believe if you can shape the culture, you own the change. Engage your team, and you win.

Other experts and seasoned practitioners believe culture isn’t the right place to focus at all, and that culture doesn’t inform processes or outcomes, but rather, the other way around; to change the culture, you must change the interdependent business structures all around it.

Professor Larry Hrebiniak at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business is in the latter camp. [ii]He warns managers not to fall into what he calls the “culture trap” or risk dooming your project to fail. We’ve all been there – a project may get off to a great start, or the initial energy may surge, only to find everyone falling back on old habits and structures in short order.

So what’s going wrong?

And what are the highly dependent variables that influence how culture is going to manifest change? The variables that matter are things like incentives, corporate structures, decision-making processes, behaviours and people, Hrebiniak infers. In other words, if your essential business processes incentivise and reinforce “how we’ve always done it” and employees experience this at every turn, no amount of culture – or culture shift – is going to pull people away from the comfort zone.

What’s comforting about this model of thinking is that c-level execs and managers all have control over these tangible things, not necessarily how people feel or how they will process the information received. Here are the four areas Hrebiniak urges executives and managers to focus on:

  1. Structure and Process. If you want to foster independent decision-making or autonomy in the field, be prepared to decentralise some processes.
  2. People. Don’t be afraid to bring in new capability…”new ideas can affect new ways of thinking and culture change.”
  3. Incentives. The example Hrebiniak gives approaches incentivising from simply “getting older” in your role to something more performance-based. It was the incentive change that fixed the culture, not the other way around.
  4. Changing and Enforcing Controls. Learn from mistakes and iterate as you go along.

Another influential thinker on the topic, MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Edgar Schein, is a little more bullish on the culture question.[iii]

He’s defined three levels of culture that managers need to be aware of, comparing them to an iceberg floating through water:

  • Top of the iceberg, above water: The behaviours that are visible, what Schein calls “artefacts”.
  • Stated values. These are the beliefs and values that lie just below the surface but can be accessed consciously.
  • Assumed values. These can’t be measured as they come largely unconsciously – they lie deep below the surface.

The stakes in getting this right are high. In our 2015 PMO trends report[iv] we found the “fully aligned” PMO must have evolved into a change agent who can support large-scale initiatives and “become known for a focus on business value realisation.” If you can’t move an agenda, your effectiveness as a leader is blunted.

Steve Bynghall, a UK-based freelance writer, recently described in CMSWire a team that had allocated 80% of its project budget to change management. Sounds absurd, right?[v]

Not so fast. While it’s highly unlikely that such an arrangement will ever become the norm, Bynghall makes a compelling case for making change management engagement-driven. That means keeping an unwavering focus on making the case for change, basically winning “hearts and minds”, managing change and analysing the success of the change. It must be a two-way street between you and your team.

Coming down the middle of the culture question in “Cracking the Hidden Challenges of Digital Leadership,”[vi]

Govnews.com, a publication for local, state and federal governments across Australia, identified four forces to heed, with culture being the last:

  • Management
  • Leadership
  • Governance
  • Culture

They argue that these four factors are tightly interconnected, so when they come out of alignment, whatever the prevailing culture is, good or bad, will fill that leadership vacuum.

So if circumventing IT governance is the part of the “iceberg” below the surface – the unspoken values to use the Schein metaphor – trying to paper over the weak management that allowed it above the water line in the name of culture isn’t going to matter.

Perhaps it’s time we all looked toward anchors not solely within culture per se but also within the business processes that help to drive such.

For more information on successfully managing change, transformation and/or agile adoption, contact us today on +65 6818 5771.

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