Posts Tagged culture

213 — How To Draw Your Cultural Landscape

The Landscape Metaphor ®

It’s impossible to put most of life’s experiences into words. At work it’s fairly straightforward to verbally describe operational issues — projects, the finances, the structure and hardware. But when it comes to our personal life, what really counts — our relationships, hopes and fears, trust or lack of, apprehensions, being heard or appreciated or ignored, i.e. the immediate, concrete, ordinary experience of being an organizational member — words just don’t cut it.

For thousands of years people have used music, dance, art, and forms of literature such as metaphor and poetry, and more recently film, to convey human experience. Of course none of them get to the core of it, but they’re the best tools we have.

To help people describe the subtle complexity of the work culture, Royal Foote, Ph.D. at Meridian Group, developed a tool that quickly records and communicates many difficult-to-describe and often too-scary-to-talk-about-directly qualities of the work culture.

What I describe here may sound to some of you a little simplistic or even childlike. But I can assure you it works spectacularly. I have used it dozens of times to great effect. Many managers look back years later to these drawings, warmly and vividly recalling the issues the metaphor helped put on the table for discussion, often for resolution. Years later managers recall the relief they felt at last getting into the open deep-seated, chronic, frustrating issues around relationships, authority, and communications.

What to Do

Because it’s so strange and unconventional, the group has to be warmed up to the task. If you are the group’s leader/facilitator you tell them the group will divide into groups of 4 or 5 people. Each small group will draw one picture that includes all the elements that individual members feel are important at work. They all have 40 minutes to do the drawing and it can only use items that you find in landscapes — any kind of landscapes — but not words.

ALandscape Itemss facilitator you now ask the group to name things they might see in a landscape. Write down the words they say on a board or pad for all to see. They might start with trees or roads or houses or people. If the group gets into one track, widen their view with a question such as “How about in the tropics?” Or “What other kinds of landscapes do we have here in America?

When the list has 20 to 40 items on it and seems to cover a wide range of landscapes, say, “Now I would like you to take 40 minutes for each group to draw a picture describing how you experience . . . . . (name of the organization) using the elements from landscapes as a metaphor. No words. We are not looking for artistry. The picture should include what is important to each of you. You each have many important experiences that you can describe this way. To start you might discuss and agree on some general picture that will allow everything to be included. Everyone should contribute. You can all draw or not, but everyone must contribute and participate. The drawing must include everything you think is important. When we get back together in 40 minutes, I’d like each group to describe how it decided what to do and then what the drawing means. Any questions? . . . . . . . . . . . . Enjoy yourselves.”

Be Patient

There’s always confusion at the beginning. It’s a strange exercise and some people may be embarrassed: “Adults don’t do things like this.” But it doesn’t take long for each group to get into the swing of it. If you have a particularly small group of leaders or managers, say six or seven, you can still make two groups. It’s important that each group work independently so they don’t see or hear what another group is doing.

People usually get very creative, drawing forests with tall trees, race cars, mountain climbing, warships at sea, battles, playgrounds, money bags, battles. These describe important parts of the work culture conveying meanings that could not be described so clearly, simply and richly by any other means.

When you return, ask each group to describe the process they went through in deciding what to do, then what the drawing is and what it means. Usually each group will have one person speak for the group, but it’s a good idea to invite each other person in that group to add anything he or she feels was missed in the description.

Drawing a landscape metaphor is an excellent beginning for a retreat or a little way into the culture development process. The drawings reveal important areas for discussion that might otherwise remain under the table. Group members typically want to take these drawings back to the office and pin them in a very visible place. It’s a memorable experience. Two examples.

landscape 2

cc 213 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

Posted in: Understanding Your Own Company Culture

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413 — Collaboration, Teamwork and Cooperation

People like to be valued and appreciated, and involved, in decisions that affect them. Involvement, teamwork and collaboration are basic human desires. To get them, invite them.

Here are two examples. The first is a manager, deep within the organization, who created a new collaborative setting with her peers. The second is how a top leadership team decided to change its collaboration message to those below.

Example I: Initiating Collaboration as A Mid-Manager

Jo-Ann, a second-tier manager in a major manufacturer, had a special assignment: to better coordinate the functions across R&D, marketing, sales, manufacturing, shipping and service. Jo-Ann and I carefully planned an approach that included “Interviewing” key people, together with carefully practiced group facilitation techniques (see Make Better Decisions).

At the first meeting, the managers, directors and VPs she invited, were suspicious. Some had wanted to send a subordinate in their place — she took this to mean that they were not on-board. It took Jo-Ann three, very carefully facilitated meetings, where she stood thoroughly neutral on all issues, before attendees trusted her enough to put their real concerns about collaboration on the table.

It was several more meetings before members allowed the group to make decisions that affected their functions. The group liked their experience and the positive results so much that they continued, expanding the topic to include other cross-functional issues. The Executive Committee applauded Jo-Ann’s success, rewarding her with a significant promotion.

The Lesson; You can invite collaboration from any level in the organization

Hidden behind much of people’s initial resistance to collaboration is the common human longing for teamwork and good relationships. If you have a project that affects others, talk with each one personally. Build a relationship. Take your time explaining how your project will affect them or their people. Stay open. Be clear that you don’t have the answer. Say something like, “I’d like to pull together everyone affected so we can all find a way to make it work for everyone. I’m planning on inviting . . . . . . . . . If I find a time that suits everyone, could you join us?” This way you can take the lead on collaboration.

If you persevere, most people will eventually join you. Don’t be fooled by people’s sometime gruff initial response. That usually just a defensive reaction to being burned in the past.

Example II: Upper Management Encourages Collaboration by Cutting the Criticism

This was the leadership group of a 5,000-person company located in the southwest. We met for several hours monthly, discussing how to build a more productive company culture. At one of these morning meetings, a manager complained that at lower levels of the company, divisions were not working well together.

In my role as their company culture consultant, I frequently reminded the group, “Nothing occurs in a vacuum. What you do as leaders sets the stage. People follow your example. What happens below is partly because of your actions here at the top. And in any case, to be practical, that is the part you can most easily change.”

This time I did not give them this full spiel, but I did ask, “What might you be doing that inadvertently supported this lack of cooperation? For example, in the last six months have any of you criticized another person in this room or another department or division?” Immediately a manger shot back with, “You mean since breakfast this morning don’t you?” Another manager chimed in, “You mean since the coffee break!” As the laughter subsided, I hardly needed to say it — but did anyway. “So here we are setting an example, by criticizing other people and divisions, and then wondering why they don’t feel like cooperating.”

This was one of those rare moments of insight for the group. At the next meeting they told stories of how they had stopped criticizing, and instead, were working together on visibly cooperative solutions. They also reported that people below had noticed the change and liked it.

The Lesson; To Understand Employee’s Behavior, Look at Leader’s Behavior

The cultural or system perspective says: “No event occurs in a vacuum. If you want to understand an event — in this case, why people aren’t collaborating — just look at the situation. It will tell you.” Ask yourself, “If people aren’t collaborating, how is our organization saying, ‘Don’t collaborate’?”

People don’t collaborate when leaders give the signal not to. This is rarely intentional. I have never found a leader who says he or she wants non-cooperation. However, I have seen many leaders whose personal actions do not demonstrate or invite collaboration. For example, they might be critical of people’s suggestions or actions, or they might make decisions without involving the people affected, or they might be generally distant. Whatever the reason, if leaders don’t show collaboration in their daily actions, people throughout the organization will follow their lead.

cc 413 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

Posted in: Topics and Issues — People

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435 — Smoother Mergers and Acquisitions — Participation Brings Higher Success Rates

Six out of ten acquisitions fail to meet their financial goals. Usually the operational and financial plans are realistic, but they don’t meet expectations because people and cultural issues prevent proper company integration.

Manage Uncertainty

When properly managed, a good merger process will strengthen both cultures, retaining key people and yielding the hoped for synergy that sadly eludes most acquisitions. Culture conflict is particularly acute when the two cultures are quite different, for example in size, centralization, openness, and formality. Even though details of what will happen cannot be known in advance, the process for merging the cultures and managing uncertainty can be clear.

The merger process will be unique to every merger but typically includes: scheduling regular update meetings, a dedicated process for posting and answering questions, and a way to include people who want to be involved in decisions. Post this decision process and invite comments for improvements. Participation is the key to success.

Communicate, Inform, Involve

Frequent and open communication reduces water-cooler talk — that is often misinformed and reinforces fears. Explain simply and clearly the acquisition’s purpose and goals. Make sure that people can personally identify with the combined company’s vision and mission.

Whether in reality, or in people’s imagination, acquisitions affect everyone. Involving those affected in the acquisition decision process — without slowing or complicating it — takes some skill, but is not as difficult as it might first seem. People want to know how they will fit into the new structure. Too often the merger team rushes to define the new structure, rather than involving employees in setting the new structure and direction, particularly how each person will fit into the new structure, his and her role and tasks. Involvement ensures a stronger plan with everyone committed to their new roles and to making the merger work. Ideally you have one person (or more) on the acquisition team who is focused on culture issues. This person, not consumed by the financial, legal, and logistical problems, provides feedback on the people side to the technical experts.

Example — The Acquired is Participatory

Managing any complex company is filled with uncertainty. This problem is magnified for managers facing a newly acquired company, of which they know practically nothing. Ideally they get help from the place of most knowledge — from the managers in the acquired company. Here is an example.

I was working with the Northern California division of Fortune (name changed) when it was acquired by a competitor, Allied (name changed). Anticipating what would happen if they did not act, I urged the Fortune managers to take control of the merger process before the Allied team came on-site. The Fortune management team was very apprehensive, “What could we do? Do we have the authority to do anything? What if we do something and they change it? Who should we ask for permission? etc., etc.”

The Acquired Managers Take Control of the Process

The Fortune team was a sophisticated leadership group that over three years had built open communications and strong relationships at all levels of their Division. Their early discussions of the merger, often about operational details, evolved into a realization that they could best serve the merger process by acting as facilitators between the two companies. So they planned a series of meetings and invited the leadership from both companies to meet, identify issues, and make decisions. They also decided to present the same open and inviting stance they had learned, not the defensive or protective one they had left behind, that still characterized other Fortune divisions, and also the acquiring company.

When the Buyer is Autocratic

They knew Allied had a centralized leadership style, concentrated in their mid-west headquarters. Allied middle management was used to taking orders and giving orders. They did not use, nor understand, participatory decision-making. The incoming Allied management team accepted the Fortune manager’s invitation to meet, but at the initial meeting I could tell, from the Allied manager’s words and faces, that they found the experience confusing. Understandably they had expected to meet people like themselves, managers who acted defensively, withholding information, jockeying for position, and highly deferential to superior authority. Instead they met a deliberately relaxed, friendly, open, candid, and non-deferential management team.

I was concerned by this, because I know that authoritarians usually interpret open behavior as weak. It tempts them to go for the jugular. Indeed a few of the younger managers from Allied were provoked by what they thought was vulnerability in the Fortune managers, and became openly hostile and aggressive. It was almost embarrassing to see these young managers strutting their stuff. But the Fortune managers knew better than to react to this. While they were concerned about the hostility, they controlled their impulses and maintained the open dialog, which, over several meetings persuaded most, though not all, of the Allied team to act similarly.

After several meetings I felt that the Allied vice president recognize the maturity of the Fortune managers, the sophistication of the process they had initiated, and the major benefits it was bringing to the merger.  But he had another problem. Above him was Allied’s top management that tolerated no challenge to their decrees. He rightly saw the dialogue of the joint meetings as a potential problem if it moved in a direction that conflicted with directives from his bosses, or with his own plans.

These joint planning meetings, conducted over several months, had many rough spots but when the dust settled the Allied vice president said that the Northern California Division merger process had been the smoothest and most successful of the many Divisions under his authority.

Example — The Acquirer is Participatory

A Texas chemical plant “A” was under threat of closure. We worked with the managers helping them build a participatory workplace that dramatically improved productivity while rebuilding the self-confidence of the A management team. When an adjoining chemical plant B declared bankruptcy the A managers propose to corporate that they acquire and merge the two plants. Though surprised by this local initiative, corporate agreed.

A was a vast international Corporation with sophisticated, detailed procedures. B was a standalone plant largely operating from the seat of its pants. Managers at A planned to bring order and stability to B. Managers at B feared stifling and suffocation from the order and procedures of A. While the A managers held most of the cards they did not know the plant B equipment and they wanted to retain if possible the experienced plant B employees and managers. What followed was a merry dance that lasted many, sometimes excruciating, months.

When the Acquired is Autocratic

Just as in the previous example the autocratic managers from plant B interpreted the openness of plant A managers as weakness. Plant B managers quickly became aggressive, thinking they could gain the upper hand. Plant B managers were confused when plant A managers did not fight back or fold but simply held their ground, restating their position, mostly about bringing more order and predictability to plant operating procedures and how the plants would be physically joined.

The confusion reached a head when the general manager of plant B resigned. He failed to see how plant could be run without his familiar top-down control style. His view of the participatory decision process was that he was being stripped of authority, that is, he was being asked to resign. When the plant A management team refused to accept his resignation he was totally confused. From his experience how could he run a plant if he didn’t have complete authority.

He wasn’t alone. Most of the original managers and supervisors could not understand participation. To help them learn, the plant A management team assigned some of their lower-level managers and supervises to act as “buddies”, working side-by-side with their counterparts at plant B. As these buddies develop stronger interpersonal relationships most of the plant B employees began to see that they were not being rolled over but were being welcomed. But it took a painfully long time for this to happen.

I was most impressed at the fortitude of the plant A managers in tolerating the kind of disruptive, sometimes childlike, acting-out behavior from plant B. I put it down to the sophisticated maturity of the plant A team that they kept the long-term goal clear — “Use the merger process to demonstrate the values that renewed our plant and made it so successful.” The A management team demonstrated participation, trust, openness, teamwork, tolerance, compassion and true leadership.

Though physically the merger of these two plants was extraordinarily complicated, merging the people side was more so. In the long run both cultures merged beautifully, almost doubling plant capacity at a very low cost. Corporate was delighted.

cc 435 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

Posted in: Topics and Issues — Operations

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437 — Manage Uncertainty and Change with Adaptability

darwincolor

 

Charles Darwin discovered a key principle of evolution — survival of the fittest.  Massive dinosaurs dominated Earth for 20 million years, but following a sudden environmental change it was the insignificant, tiny, agile mammals that adapted and survived. Darwin recognized that in the long run fittest meant most adaptable.

With today’s increasing uncertain business environment — in markets, technology and regulation — organizing your company around yesterday’s predictability, brings unacceptable risk. We no longer have a stable environment — where the appropriate response is a hierarchic structure, policy manuals, and detailed procedures for each contingency. In a changing, uncertain, unpredictable environment, employees who are hampered by old-style structures and policies can’t respond quickly or properly. That’s the path to extinction.

Engage Employees with the Marketplace

The key to quickly adapting to the changing marketplace is being highly engaged with that marketplace. You can’t predict where the changes will come from but you will minimize your risk if every employee is fully committed and engaged, rapidly responding to change by feeding information into the organization, information they constantly receive through their engagement.

That kind of organizational adaptability takes strong relationships and trust. But how can you hold an employee’s trust when you can’t even promise they’ll be here tomorrow? “I want committed employees, but I can’t commit to them.” This looks like a dilemma. The challenge is to build a company culture, where employees are committed, open and trusting, but at the same time understand and accept that there are no employment guarantees.

It Takes Honesty, Openness and Trust

Employees know the realities of business. Adults appreciate straight talk. Unfortunately many managers think they should always put on a good front and that that sometimes means concealing negative information that may significantly affect employees, such as a severe financial downturn. But in an open and trusting workplace, where people at all levels are committed to each other, managers can talk as straightforwardly to employees about the financial health of the company, or unstable markets, or employment as they can about anything else.

Employees should be able to trust management to be open and honest, no matter what the topic. In such a workplace employees will accept the facts as facts because they know that no matter what happens, managers will do their best for everybody. That’s the new contract. It’s powerful and it works.

Does that sound hard to achieve? You might need help getting there, but the result is an adaptive, market-responsive company, guaranteeing survival. Darwin would approve, maybe even smile.

cc 437 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

Posted in: Topics and Issues — People

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145 – Resilience

 

A company’s level of resilience may determine whether it succeeds or fails, how constructively it responds to change, setbacks and stress. A well developed culture is resilient.

Resilient Plant

A 400 person California manufacturing plant, one of 10 in the national corporate system, had during 30 months, doubled its productivity. No other plant in the company was even close. Along with this highly developed “we-are-the-best” company culture, came a positive attitude to stress and trauma.

Introducing new products into the production process was normally stressful. Most of the company’s other plants maneuvered to avoid taking on new products and making the necessarily disruptive changes to their production. It invariably meant a drop in their performance. Not so in this California plant. Employees there relished the challenge posed by the new products. It energized them. It was the one plant that actively solicited new products. The employees enjoyed devising new and creative ways to respond to the manufacturing and packaging challenges. The employees saw themselves as successful achievers, proud of their company-wide reputation as being the “do-anything-number-one-plant”. While every other plant saw new products as a negative, this plant saw them as a positive. That was their attitude toward everything — which was why they were number one.

Increasing Unpredictability Calls for New Ways

Many gurus of corporate life and the marketplace suggest we are moving further from predictability – more towards managing change and uncertainty. I agree. The appropriate response to an increasingly unpredictable world is not to try and develop more refined predictive models, but to develop systems and organizations that respond rapidly and appropriately to the expected but unknown new demands.

If what you predict is constant, accelerating but unknown change, the appropriate response is an engaged, healthy, stay-calm, resilient, positive, energized corporate culture. Resilient companies succeed because there is corporate wide trust and support, open and honest communications across divisions and between levels, and no resistance to change, because everybody is appropriately joined to their environment.

In a rapidly changing world we don’t know where we will be next year. But we do know that with the right corporate culture, with the right attitude, with engagement and resilience, we will arrive safe, sound, and successful.

cc 145 – © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

Posted in: About Company Culture — Why is Culture Important?

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