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I think we can all agree that a positive organizational culture is good for business:  It makes people more productive, it ensures that top performers want to join the organization, it reduces turnover, and it has an important halo effect on the consumer brand.

And a positive culture is palpable.  We can all think of times when we've walked into an organization and the 'buzz' is unmistakeable.  People seem friendly, there's a hum of activity, and you think to yourself:  "This is a business that's really going places."

organic workplace culture

It's easy to think that this 'buzz' is organic, a natural outgrowth of an accidentally great group of people or set of economic conditions which favor the product/service the company is selling.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

The best workplace cultures do seem organic, because they seem genuine.  People who are happy in the workplace tend to communicate that happiness to visitors, and it's hard to fake a positive 'vibe'.  However, in an economy where people rarely stay in one job for more than 7 years (and often change jobs every 2-3 years), organizations can't rely on accidentally assembling a good group of people who will maintain a positive culture over the long term.  The culture needs to be bigger than any single person or team in order to survive.

So how do you ensure that your positive culture seems unforced but also survives today's job transiency?  Here are 5 tips:

  1. To thine own self be true.  The reason the best cultures seem organic is because they're based on the actual values and personality of the organization.  Trying to impose a free-wheeling entrepreneurial culture on a blue-chip investment firm isn't going to work - and it isn't going to deliver the benefits you want, anyway.
  2. Recognize that a 'culture strategy' is just as important as a sales strategy or human capital strategy.  Your sales team won't just 'accidentally' exceed their targets this year unless you establish a plan to get there; your organizational culture needs the same attention.
  3. Remember that a great culture can't reside in a single person or team.  Smaller companies and functional teams often think they've got a great dynamic going on - until one or two of the linchpin people leave, and the rest of the team sort of falls apart.  Yes, some people will naturally have more of an effect on your workplace than others, but culture needs to be embedded across the organization in order to survive in the long term.
  4. Be clear and specific.  It's not enough to sort of vaguely say, "We stand for, um, good service and ethics..." once a year at the company Christmas party.  You need to articulate core values and attitudes, and what this means for employee behavior, in order to foster hte actions that lead to a positive culture.
  5. Great cultures require a sustained effort.  Want to launch your new-and-improved corporate culture at a big all-employee rah-rah event?  Fantastic - but don't assume that a single event, no matter how exciting, will be sufficient.  As employees come and go over time, you need to ensure that culture-building activities, large and small, are going on all the time, from appropriate onboarding for new employees to monthly updates for long-term employees.

Want to learn more about developing a strong workplace culture that not only survives, but thrives, in a transient employee environment?  This whitepaper offers some interesting case studies about workplace, culture and brands that might inspire you.

The other day I was having lunch with a colleague, a long-term change management practitioner.  "Getting people to understand the need for a formal change management strategy and implementation plan has always been a bit of a struggle," she said.  "But I feel like it's getting harder.  Leaders of organizations seem to just assume that everyone is comfortable with constant change, so there's no need to 'manage' it."

She's right:  These days, when organizations think about change, they tend to think it's something they do all the time (maybe it's called 'innovation' or 'disruption' or 'process improvement', but it's all 'change') anyway, so there's no need to 'manage' it.  And who needs a change management expert anyway, when a junior project manager with a GANTT chart can track timelines and send reminder emails to people who miss deadlines?

In some ways I agree that the role of change management has, in fact, changed.  Twenty years ago, launching a new enterprise-wide software system - for example - required a whole lot of change management, because it often signaled a fundamental shift in the way the business operated and the average worker took longer to adapt.  Today, depending on the organization, department and function, deploying a new piece of enterprise software is often easier, because the technology is more seamless and most employees are quicker to adapt.


Change management really isn't about chasing people around with a GANTT chart or making sure the latest Sharepoint update has been installed.  At the end of the day, change management - at least the way I see it - is about helping organizations handle change with the most beneficial effect on the bottom line.

Here's the thing:  Constant change is tiring.  As I said in my first book, when you are constantly changing, your employees aren't getting better at it - they are getting tired.  And when your employees are tired, they aren't as productive.  Employees don't really 'embrace' constant change - they just brace themselves because they know more change is just around the corner.  It's like when you're on a roller coaster ride and you grip the handrail really tightly in anticipation of the next wild turn.  Now, I know some people love roller coasters, but even the most die-hard fans don't want to ride them all day, every day, for a living.

That being said, I know change, even constant change, is now the norm for most companies.  So help your employees help you by becoming the best and most transparent communicator you can.  Spend time tellin gthem the 'why' of the change, help them see how they fit in, re-train them if necessary - and cut them some slack, acknowledge their pain.  You might just find that productivity (and enthusiasm) go up.

I've talked about this before:  When change isn't properly communicated and implemented with an emphasis on the 'people side of change', it costs the organization time, money, and, in many cases, the top-performing employees.

And that's where change management is important.  Developing a change management strategy is about gathering requirements, listening to feedback, communicating effectively and making time for training - all of which will ensure the change happens more seamlessly and painlessly than it would otherwise.  The result?  A healthier bottom line, faster.

Humans need narratives in order to make sense of their world - we're hardwired to respond to stories.  If your change initiative doesn't provide a strong 'story' that your employees can understand, internalize, and communicate to others, I can guarantee it won't work the way you want it to.

"But," I hear you say, "I'm not exactly J.K. Rowling over here.  How am I supposed to come up with a 'story'?"

Don't worry - storytelling isn't about writing a novel about your business.  It's about creating a narrative that puts the new information in a context that helps people make sense of the change and understand why it's important.  Here's how to get started.

OPTION 1:  Tell the story from the employee’s perspective

In this approach, the business story is told from the employee’s point of view, and should include one or more of the following elements:

  • Use the employee as the protagonist to demonstrate why the new model makes sense (“Employees in X department were finding that processing new orders was taking more than 24 hours, which made it difficult to meet deadlines.  The new system will cut the average employee’s workload in half.”)
  • Describe how the new model will solve customer problems (“By cutting the 24-hour processing time in half, customers will get their orders faster and with less time spent on CRM.”)
  • Communicate how the new model or approach will make better use of resources, activities or partnerships compared to the old model (“By partnering with Acme Inc., we’ll gain new markets for our product line which will increase sales and help the company grow - which in turn will deliver benefits to all our employees in the form of greater job security, better career opportunities, and increased compensation.”)
  • Demonstrate how the change will better reflect the employee’s values, beliefs or ideology and thereby increase their job satisfaction (“By changing to the new system, we’ll cut our energy use by 25%, because we believe that companies have a responsibility to look after the environment and we know our employees believe that, too.”)

OPTION 2:  Tell the story from the customer’s perspective

In this approach, the story is told with the customer as the protagonist.  This approach is particularly useful for businesses with a strong customer focus and where employees are already inclined to identify with customers.

  • Describe specific challenges the customer faces and how the new model will help address these challenges (“We know our customers have been hit hard by the recession, so our new a la carte pricing helps them manage expenditures more effectively.”)
  • Use some drama and emotion to help the story resonate with employees (“Our products are used by 3400 childrens’ hospitals across the country.  Our new process will ensure that our products do a better job of making children’s surgical recovery times easier and less painful - which means they can go home to their families much sooner than they did before.”)

Remember:  Stories which are perceived as patronizing or overly simplified can backfire:  “They told us X in the meeting, but I saw on the news that our share price is down due to Y.  I guess they’re lying to us as usual.”  Whether you go with Option 1 or 2, keeping the narrative honest, transparent and authentic is crucial to organizational buy-in.


Adapted from Business Model Generation [ link to ]  by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur.




Towers Watson undertook a 'Change and Communication ROI Study' this year, and are producing some interesting infographics from the data they collected.  In this one, they highlight how managers (particularly lower-level ones) aren't well-served by most change management initiatives.

Last time, we talked about how gathering input from the organization prior to a change is crucial to success.  But how, exactly, can you gather input without having to sit down with each individual employee?

Here are 5 ways to get accurate input without spending months on one-to-ones:

  1. Focus groups:  Set up a series of focus groups across the organization.  Include all departments which will be affected by the change (even if it’s only tangentially), all levels (juniors often have valuable insights), and all roles (IT types might be less gregarious than the salespeople, but they often know more about the organization than you think)
  2. Deputize managers to gather feedback:  Bring managers from the relevant departments together and show them how to facilitate an input-gathering session with their direct reports.  Provide them with some standardized, structured questions so you get consistent responses across the various departments
  3. Host a ‘town hall’ meeting:  Bring everyone together in an auditorium or other large space, present the change strategy, and then ask for questions from the audience.  This won’t work in every situation (it depends on the size and structure of the organization) but it has the added advantage of providing employees with information about the change, and this can build both enthusiasm and teamwork
  4. Try a pilot project:  Try a 4-6 month pilot in a specific department or area (much like McDonalds will try out a new menu item in a limited geographical region before rolling it out to all restaurants).  The feedback and insights you gain can be used to tweak the change strategy when you apply it to the rest of the organization.  This won’t be feasible for all change initiatives, but works well for new products, new marketing systems, new customer service processes, etc.
  5. Set up an online forum:  Create an online bulletin board within the company intranet and invite employees to offer input, insights or even questions.  You may find that a normally reserved employee has a lot to offer when s/he has the opportunity to express their thoughts in writing without feeling as exposed as s/he would if required to do so in person.

As I mentioned before, sometimes it’s not appropriate to do too much internal input-gathering prior to a change.  However, it’s important to remember that when you ask for input, you’re helping your stakeholders to feel personally invested in the change - and that’s the first step to ensuring they respond positively and enthusiastically when it comes time for implementation.



Monday, 16 September 2013 22:27

What causes behavioral change? [infographic]

Interesting infographic of the Fogg Behavior Model.  Image via Pixelbento.

A few months ago I started working with a new client to develop and implement a change management strategy around their sales processes.  “We really just need you to create the strategy and oversee the implementation,” the senior leadership team told me in our preliminary meetings.  “We have a full-time project manager who’ll be able to handle the day-to-day.”

“Great,” I thought - after all, if you leave all your change up to external consultants, the changes often walk out the front door when the consultants do.  So I was looking forward to working with the project manager.

Our first meeting seemed to go well:  She came prepared, with an organized binder full of reference materials and some good questions about implementation details.  I thought we were off to a good start.

Until the next day, when I sent her a follow-up email - and she replied, CC-ing no fewer than 8 other people.  “Okay,” I thought, “she’s just letting everyone know we’ve gotten started in earnest.”  But no.  Every email response was a ‘reply all’, and if the email had been sent only to her, in her reply she added everyone who’d ever been involved in the conversation - juniors, co-workers, managers, senior leadership, sometimes even suppliers. 

Thanks to the relentless use of ‘reply all’, by the end of the week I had 62 emails about a project that hadn’t even really started yet, and I was exhausted.  When you’re working off-site with a new client, you have to pay close attention to emails.  Spending so much time re-reading ‘reply all’ threads in case they contained important information somewhere in the scrolldown was driving me nuts - especially when it turned out that most of them consisted of really crucial information like “Thanks.  Talk to you on Monday.”

But in some ways I was glad it had happened so early on, because a chronic ‘reply all-er’ can be a real problem for a change initiative.  Here’s why:

  • They aren’t respectful of other people’s time.  I wasn’t the only one who had to sift through 62+ irrelevant emails that week, and I’m quite sure that the other 8 people who’d been CCed on everything had many more productive things to do.  When people see a change initiative as a huge time-suck, they’re more inclined to resist it as the project moves forward.
  • They don’t know how to prioritize information.  When a project manager doesn’t realize that, for example, the CIO doesn’t need to be copied on an email regarding the design of some new materials for the sales team, it’s a good indication that they won’t understand how best to communicate information about the change to the rest of the organization.  And this can be a huge barrier to change management success.
  • They’re too worried about office politics.  People who CC everyone on every email are usually trying to cover their own backside, spread blame, or make it look like they’re busier than they really are.  All of these tendencies can be lethal to a change initiative.

So how do you handle an obsessive CC-er?  Since she was a long-time employee of my client’s organization, and was internally well-liked, I couldn’t have her removed from the project.  And she was quite good with managing timelines.  So I put her in charge of ensuring we were on track with various deadlines, and, using the “We need a single point of contact” approach, I got her to funnel all communications through me for the duration of the initiative.  The change implementation was successful - and we never had a 62-email-week again.


Sometimes I like to check out some of the change management-related videos on YouTube - you’d be surprised what you can find there.  The other day, while watching another video, YouTube suggested I watch this one: 


Rick Ross’ premise here, in case you’re not inclined to watch the video yourself, is that ‘change management’ is an outdated relic from the ‘industrial age’.  Judging from his website, I think that when he refers to the ‘industrial age’, he means ‘before technology dramatically changed the way organizations function’.  The implication in this video is that ‘change management’ is outdated and doesn’t adequately allow for the organization to have input into change strategy before a change is implemented.

However, the truth is that recognizing the need for adequate organizational input - and Ross’ suggestions for how to make this happen - is already a best practice in change management.  We’ve talked about listening to employees before; in fact, it was the subject of our very first blog post.  His suggestions aren’t a modern twist on the dinosaur that is change management - they’re what every good change management practitioner is already doing.

Ross mentions a company called Humana, which got 26,000 of its 40,000 employees to start using a social networking tool for better internal communications.  That sounds okay - though as a change management professional I’d be looking for better than a 65% adoption rate - but according to this article, if Humana had done a better job of soliciting input from different parts of the organization, they could have achieved a much higher level of compliance across the company, faster.  

Of course, there’s always a “but…”

Sometimes, a change doesn’t lend itself to large-scale organizational input. 

In the Humana example, the CIO didn’t spent a lot of time engaging the organization prior to the change because he decided that it was more important to just get started with the social networking tool quickly rather than waiting months while they collected input from 40,000 employees.  And sometimes that kind of approach makes sense.

There are other situations in which large-scale organizational input isn’t appropriate:  Maybe the changes are part of a plan that needs to be kept under wraps for legal or competitive reasons; maybe a decision is made to try a small pilot program before the change goes organization-wide; and even I can admit that some changes are too small to warrant a lengthy dialogue period.

At the end of the day, it’s still ‘change management’

Whether you spend a lot of time on organizational input or not, the strategic plan and implementation of change is still ‘change management’.  You are still managing yourself and your organizations through change change.  Change management is really just the act of harnessing the power of your people in order to achieve a certain goal. That's never just a relic of a bygone age - it's your silver bullet to success.

Imagine:  You’ve created a new organizational structure which turns the traditional hierarchy on its head.  Your new org structure is new!  It’s creative!  It’s innovative!  Most importantly, you know it’s exactly what your organization needs in order to move to the next level. 

You announce your new structure on a Monday morning, and tell everyone that it’ll go into effect two weeks from that Monday.  You take the senior leadership team through an exciting PowerPoint presentation detailing your plans, then send them out to make it happen in their departments.  You’re excited - the future is so bright, and your organization is going to be so well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunities coming down the pike!

Cut to:  Six months later.  You’re sitting in a conference room with your senior leadership team, trying to figure out how, exactly, your business has fallen so dangerously behind the competition.  The innovative organizational structure that seemed so promising 6 months ago has dissolved into chaos, your top performers are starting to evacuate, and if you don’t come up with a miracle, fast, you won’t be at the head of the boardroom table much longer.

So what happened? 

(Change + innovation) - (change management plan) = Changerous

Things get changerous when you try to implement a whole new model without a change management plan.

“Change management?!” you scoff.  “Who has time to be that boring and old-school?  Around here, change is hardwired into our DNA.  We’re dynamically synergistic, we’re early adopters!  We’re so far ahead of the curve we’re practically Zappos!  Go on - take your Gantt charts with you, while our all-Millennial workforce conducts our entire business via Tumblr!”


Here are 3 things you might want to think about:

  1. Done right, change management plans can (and should) be just as innovative as the change itself.  It might help you to know that Google had a very detailed change management plan for the implementation of Google Glass
  2. Your business may have done a lot of changing in the recent past, but that doesn’t mean you’ve gotten better at it.  In fact, it may mean that your employees don’t bother to make changes because they know next week they’ll have to do it differently anyway
  3. Your 20-something employees may seem amenable to change, but their lack of experience may make it difficult for them to really implement it effectively.  Even the brightest, most agile employees need to understand how their jobs will change, and how all the new pieces fit together.

Think about it this way:  You’ve been driving for years, and you’re pretty good at it.  Then someone hands you the keys to a Maserati, says, “It’s all yours - have fun!”, and walks off into the sunset.  You get in the car, turn the key in the ignition - and then realize it’s a stick shift, which you’ve never driven before.  Trying to get it out of the parking garage without getting a couple of lessons in driving manual transmissions?  That’s changerous.


Wednesday, 14 August 2013 05:46

Word of the Day: Salutogenesis

Aaron Antonovsky was a social scientist at the Ben Gurion University in Israel who studied what he called salutogenesis, or “how people manage stress and stay well”.  The goal of his research was to understand how some people remain healthy their whole lives, no matter what happens to them, while others do not. 

He said that our orientation to life was comprised of three main areas:

  • Comprehensibility (how we make sense of our world)
  • Manageability (our sense of control and our belief that we have the skills to do what needs to be done)
  • Meaningfulness (how interesting and purposeful we find life to be)

These ideas are particularly relevant when we’re thinking about change within an organization:

  • Change is most likely to succeed when the people affected by it also understand it (comprehensibility)
  • Change is most likely to succeed when the people involved are confident that they will be able to cope with it (manageability)
  • Change is most likely to succeed when the people affected by it feel that it has meaning and purpose for them (meaningfulness)

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that addressing comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness in your change strategy is crucial to success.  Here’s what I mean:



I’ve written before about how communication is the #1 factor in the success of change.  Comprehensibility happens when you establish the right ‘story’ around a change, and then communicate it clearly, consistently and often.


It sounds trite, but it’s true:  People really are capable of great things when they know that the people around them (especially those in leadership positions) believe in them.  When you empower your employees, and let them know that you have faith in their ability to successfully navigate a change, you’ll find they’ll exceed your expectations, every time.


Want to derail a change initiative, fast?  When your employees ask “Why are we doing this?”, answer them with “Because head office says so.”  (A close second is “Because we’re driving shareholder value,” when you know the person you’re talking to doesn’t actually own any shares.)  If you want people to put in the extra effort required to implement a change successfully, you need to help them understand why and how it is important to them:  “It will make your day-to-day job easier,” or “It will allow our department to contribute more to the bottom line, which means our bonuses will increase.” 

And now, I dare you to use ‘salutogenesis’ in a sentence this week!

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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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