The Number One Mistake You Make When Trying to Change Your Organization’s Culture

The biggest mistake people make when trying to change their organization is to barrel forward without establishing a high sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees.  This is a fatal error.


Transformations always fail when people are complacent

Judy was tapped to head up a new transformation initiative for her company.  She was smart, she was motivated, and she was dedicated.  Moreover, she was able to see a lot of the problems under the covers that would derail the company in the future.  She saw it as her personal mandate to ensure success.

She worked day and night to launch new initiatives to help the organization “take the leap”, but she realized few others saw the problems, or the potential upside of successful change, in the same way she did.  However, she failed to see this as a failure mode for the change efforts.


As a seasoned executive, she knew she could push people to get on board or replace them outright if they didn’t get on the bus

In the 3 years after she was put in charge of this new transformation initiative, she watched all her efforts get gobbled up by the complacency machine.  No matter how much “carrot and stick” she tried,  she couldn’t even make it past the first phase with any level of success.  The changes to the organization took so long to implement, competitors could easily react to the changes.


Because she couldn’t establish momentum fast enough, funding for her change initiative was cut

Even the reorganization she proposed was talked and analyzed to death.  Eventually, she gave up and moved to become the head of a new division that was already successfully implementing a lot of the ideas she was trying to push forward in the broader organization.  Unfortunately, over the next two years, she watched, horrified, as the broader organization (with little sense of urgency) ignored all the powerful lessons that could be learned from this upstart division.


And instead, the larger organization stifled the innovation and flexibility of this new division

Smart people like Judy don’t create enough urgency at the outset of business transformations.  They over estimate how much they can force the changes and underestimate how hard it is to get people out of their comfort zones.  They don’t understand how their own misguided actions can uphold the “business as usual” mindset.  They’re not patient enough.  They are intimidated by making the hard choices that can lead to a downturn in short-term results.

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5 Ways to Create a Sense of Urgency for Culture Change

Creating major change in an organization is tough. The change process in the context of any business transformation is even more tricky.  And for that, you will need to create a sense of urgency.   Creating a strong sense of urgency requires bold, if not risky, actions that we normally associate with good leadership.

We typically don’t see real leadership because companies are mostly “overmanaged and underled,” and having “everything under control (managed)” is the central value. It’s hard to get someone to take bold action if they have been rewarded for 30 years for being cautious and prudent. Here are some ways to establish a sense of urgency:


1. Create a crisis by making an organizational failure very, very visible

Most companies try to hide, obfuscate, or downplay organizational failures. An example would be missing a key product delivery deadline because of gridlock in the legal department. Instead of chalking it up to “that’s just how it goes sometimes,” focus on it, talk about it, force conversations about it, and use it as leverage to shock people into talking about change.


2. Share data about customer satisfaction and financial performance across the organization

This is another area where I see obfuscation. How on earth will people feel a sense of urgency if senior management is always telling everyone, “Things are fine”? Share this information across the company so that everyone is talking from the same point of reference.


3. Insist that people talk regularly to dissatisfied customers, unhappy suppliers, and disgruntled stakeholders

“But that’s the job of customer service!” We are all customer service. Have developers talk to dissatisfied customers and they will learn more in a five-minute conversation than in a month of customer satisfaction surveys. Have the CEO take a few customer service calls. Have everyone share the pain. Again, this serves to put everyone on equal footing in understanding where the shortcomings are, and it increases the urgency level.


4. Put more honest discussions of the firm’s problems in company newspapers and senior management speeches

American corporate culture tends to do a lot of cheerleading when things are going well, and a lot of cheerleading when things are going poorly. Your employees are not children. Be honest, air out the issues, and ensure that they are talked about every day and are at the top of everyone’s agenda.


5. Bombard people with information on future opportunities, on the wonderful rewards for capitalizing on those opportunities, and on the organization’s current inability to pursue those opportunities

Make the pain and shortcomings visible. This will serve to incite people to ask why, and this will activate their competitive streak to try to go after these market opportunities. Urgency increased! Creating a sense of urgency plants the seeds of successful change.

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