An Olympic gold medal athlete must acclimate in a new country before they compete. They prepare within the new altitude and climate so they can function at their personal best within that particular environment. In the same way, an executive or change leader embarking on a strategy implementation will need to acclimate to be successful – understanding and adjusting to execute the strategy within the culture.
The ability to acclimate varies across the amateur, professional and gold medal level of execution performance. At the basic amateur level, the change leader is working against the culture. At professional level, the change leader is typically aware of the cultural issues but cannot seem to overcome them. At gold medal level, the change leader deeply understands the culture and is able to adapt the style, execution architecture and pace of work to be successful within that culture . They are not expending unproductive effort to battle against the culture. Gold medal level means the change leader is maximising their execution productivity – achieving the highest business impact for their efforts.
You can’t achieve change if you aren’t accepted by those you’re trying to change.
Change leaders often have a mandate to change the organisational culture itself, yet ironically the culture can be the very thing that causes them to fail. Culture can be a subtle, invisible barrier that is not understood by those trying to achieve the change, or it can be something the change team takes time to understand and works purposefully to acclimate within, to gain acceptance, so that they can then successfully challenge “the way we do things around here” – changing the culture from within. The onus is on the change leader to acclimate, to be accepted first, before they can begin to change the very system that is entrenching the undesirable behaviours.
If the change leader does not acclimate to the culture, they are unlikely to gain acceptance by those they are trying to change. Some change leaders have outstanding resumes and strong change mandates, yet are rejected and forced out of their organisations. Others find themselves sidelined and rendered useless.
Case example: A newly appointed executive aimed to introduce a new ambitious strategy for a division of an Australian business. The culture was highly collegial and participative, and everyone was used to “having their say”. She failed to build relationships or gain acceptance by her peers and their team, sealing herself off physically in a separate office while her peers and team were all in open plan. Fear and confusion increased significantly when she announced her plans without consultation. She was seen as cold, remote and unknown. She left suddenly within months of starting in the role.
It’s easy to blame the culture for failure
You may hear of your culture being blamed as the reason things don’t get done – for example, trying to implement a customer-centric culture when people won’t adjust what they are doing, or an inability to improve sales because different divisions don’t work together effectively. It is easy to blame executives for being overly focused on their own fiefdoms, when we want them to focus on the greater good. It is easy to blame staff for being resistant to new ideas
In my observations, the inability to acclimate is the most common underlying reason for project or strategy implementation failure. It is sometimes masked as something else, such as a budget that is suddenly removed or a program that is shut down because of a change in direction, but the underlying often-unspoken rationale is often the inability of the change leaders to work within the culture.
How to Acclimate
The change leader needs to start by understanding the culture. Some change leaders are naturally intuitive, and have the emotional quotient (EQ) and perception to understand the culture, and know what they need to do to acclimate. For many change leaders, various cultural diagnostic tools are useful to diagnose the type of culture, and provide insights into the behaviours that are associated with that culture.
Once the change leader understands the predominant cultural style, they need to acclimate in three ways: their personal style, the execution architecture and the pace of the change that they establish.
Firstly, the change leader needs the flexibility to adjust their personal style to different situations. A personal style that works in one culture may not work in another. This includes subtle symbolic gestures. There are often unintended interpretations made in organisations about seemingly straightforward decisions such as the change leader’s choice of dress, the choice of open plan or traditional offices (see case example on page 1), or the location or timing of meetings. It’s about figuring out what will work within the culture to gain sufficient acceptance, while still being authentic, so that the change leader has a mandate for change.
- Commercial perspective – strategic, pragmatic and financial viability
- Project or program perspective – program governance
- People perspective – understanding of human behaviour and change management
Thirdly, the pace of change will need to vary to acclimate within the culture. Within some cultures, if the change leader moves faster than the natural pace at which the culture can absorb change, then they will do so at the risk of being rejected.
Acclimating to Different Cultures
Here are some examples of how to acclimate to some common cultural types we see in Australia:
- In a high performance culture, people are strongly motivated and encouraged to drive hard for business results. You may expect to see such a culture in an investment bank. The change leader’s personal style needs to emphasise results. The commercial approach for any change needs to be underpinned by a clearly communicated, logical, business case. The program governance approach that works best is to manage through outcome, not process. The change leader can achieve very fast change if they communicate clearly and ensure people understand the desired outcomes.
- In an oppositional culture, people will challenge new ideas. The change leader needs to be tough enough to handle direct confrontation. The commercial approach must be underpinned by a robust business case, as it will be strongly questioned and challenged. A segmented stakeholder strategy is needed – which means different forums and approaches for different groups of stakeholders. If the change leader focuses on converting some of the influential skeptics, they can gain ground quickly.
- In an avoidance culture, decisions are avoided and there is an avoidance of closure – which can mean constant “reinventing the wheel” and re-prosecuting old issues. You may expect to see this in old-style government departments. The change leader needs to be firm but not pushy – if they push too hard they will be rejected. There is typically a strong respect for authority in these cultures, so the executive needs to firmly reinforce their support for the change. A strong project and program governance structure is needed where initiatives are carefully prioritised and accountability is locked in, thus avoiding “analysis paralysis”. The change leader will benefit from finding “insiders” who will tell you what is really going on. While there are often high levels of business as usual activity in these cultures, this may be an excuse for a slow pace of change.
- In siloed cultures, there are independent, often fragmented business units with different sub-cultures that tend to compete rather than cooperate. An astute change leader will acknowledge the differences, but de-personalise the debate and galvanise everyone around a common cause. To gain traction within the silos, divisional executive support is most critical. The program governance requires a divisionalised program approach, with integration at the corporate level. The change leader needs to avoid the convenience of a one-size-fits-all, corporate mandate and a different pace will be needed in each division to suit the various sub-cultures.
- In risk-averse cultures, the change leader needs to take a conservative and carefully considered approach to change. Examples are found in accounting and law firms. The change leader must acknowledge and follow due process, which can result in a slower pace of change. The business case needs extensive risk analysis, with large investments divided up into palatable increments. Pilots will be helpful in achieving a proof of concept for small “manageable chunks” of work. Confidence is built through demonstrated success.
The following table summarises these cultural types and how to acclimate successfully to make change happen.
Case example: A large, decentralised organisation was trying to develop a new business model that implied significant upheaval for Executive and management roles. Each Executive had a siloed view from their own division’s perspective, which made it hard for the CEO to gain critical input to the new model. After a 6 month internal “talk-fest” with no resolution (in a culture that avoids decisions), we were invited to assist them accelerate their business model and execution. We de-politicised the process by hosting an Executive discussion based on key focus areas, rather than discussing their current functions. Each focus area was then assigned a task force, including a cross-section of staff and Executives from across the business. They were given specific tasks that they then had to present back to the Executive within a defined time frame. By removing the “wriggle-room”, and de-personalising the debate, we were able to help them gain consensus on the model, and ultimately to implement it.
Patience and Persistence
Understanding and being able to acclimate to the culture will help you maximise your execution productivity and business outcomes. This is about perception and empathy, as much as it is about rigorous analytics and cultural tools. It is about patience and persistence, a “tweak and nudge approach”, trial and error, trying different things, and modifying your own behavioural repertoire to fit the situation. Execution typically follows a path that is not linear or straightforward. If it was easy, then everyone would be doing it well, and we wouldn’t be seeing such high failure rates for project execution.