Change Your Corporate Culture To Enable Change

To foster innovation at your company, you need to ask the right questions.

“Innovate or die” is not news. But innovation requires companies to change and, unfortunately, most gases and welding distributorships cannot do much more than fine-tune their past. At companies where too many top-down change initiatives have fizzled, employees can even become cynical about new change efforts and ignore them. If your company is struggling to escape its past ways in a changing world, what is your credible, going-forward “growth story” (vision) that you need to attract and keep better-than-average employees who will, in turn, help make those changes happen?

How do you change how you have been trying to change? Here’s a theory: Besides top-down vision and will to change, what if you also have to have a “corporate culture” that “enables” change to happen? Will your corporate culture allow the management team, for example, to even think about how the company thinks about change? How could you test this corporate culture hypothesis quickly and cheaply?

Ask Specific Questions
The “fail forward faster” guideline suggests that your company should try some necessarily imperfect experiments to learn as much as you can in the shortest time for the lowest total cost. Because thought experiments are especially fast and cheap, what if you: (1) wrote down a lot of questions that the company can (2) deliberately choose to live with, instead of offering instant, action-oriented answers or universal stops like “we tried that already” or “we are already doing that”? These two steps would be true experiments for most companies!

Below are some questions to seed the effort. Perhaps they will trigger more related questions that together will create a “question map” about this tweak-your-company-culture theory:

  • What are the specific, corporate antibodies that have killed your past change initiatives?
  • What if you could: name those specific, anti-change rules and behaviors; explore the unspoken, dysfunctional assumptions (and motives) behind them; and then re-engineer them to create a climate that enables innovation and change?
  • When was the last time you did a quick, informal “corporate culture audit” that surveyed a cross-section of your employees with a promise of anonymity to find out how things really “get done or not done around here”?

To expand on the last point above, why, when and how might you take a next step and use an hour or two of an outsider’s help (remember: don’t spend a lot; test cheaply) just in case your company might have some management groupthink, blind spots or dated clutter? Most gardens need to be weeded, and most plants in the garden need to be pruned to grow better. Why should all of the ideas that make up your corporate culture be any different?

With a promise of anonymous cover, an outsider should also be able to coax some extra information out of the bottom 80 percent of the payroll concerning what really happens in the minds and hearts of the front-liners when change edicts are handed down. And, best of all, if the outsider should deliver honest feedback that is critical about how top management is a big part of the problem, well, you can fire them at a small investment loss and choose to accept only the amount of reality you can handle! (Question: Do ego needs, denial and even moderate delusions come in all degrees from the individual level to the collective team level? True or false?)

Corporate Culture Audit
For more food for thought on the topic of “corporate culture audit,” check out these sources on the Internet:

  • Go to www.wikipedia.org and read the entries on “corporate culture” and “memes” (rhymes with genes).
  • Google “how to do a corporate culture audit” and do some cheap, fast reading.
  • Check out this URL for ideas on “innovation memes”: http://www.merrifield.com/articles/SixCultureOfInnovationMemes.pdf.
  • Do some quick survey work of employees without an outside expert (even cheaper and faster). Brainstorm about what would be some good questions to put on surveys for managers, sales reps, operations people, etc.

If these questions about corporate culture are unsettling, don’t worry. Less than four percent of all mature companies are able to continuously innovate. Most companies have over-invested in being too:

  • Efficient instead of effective.
  • Short-term numbers-oriented instead of steady, long-term investors in continuous innovation.
  • Highly consistent and stable in how they operate (that is, efficient) without trying enough new stuff that is inherently disruptive, messy at first, and could involve extra expense and stress.
  • Tightly run in a hierarchal manner that actually suits most people who would rather not be individually responsible for continuously learning and failing forward either at home or on the job. Ambitious, innovative, self-starting individuals don’t work (for long), however, at stable, growing-nowhere companies.

On the other hand, most non-starter-type people are not happy being crank-turners in a slowly dying company. Most would prefer a creative balance of stability with something new that has an upside for them and all stakeholders, but they both need and appreciate some social and institutional support to help them be the person they want to be. How can you re-engineer some of your corporate culture memes to reduce the memes that hinder learning, change and growth, and add ones that will enable all of the things that go into “change capacity”?

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
D. Bruce Merrifield Jr. Meet the Author
D. Bruce Merrifield Jr. is president of the Merrifield Consulting Group Inc., located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and on the Web at www.merrifield.com.