“The operation was a success. Unfortunately, the patient died.”

That’s how I interpreted the feedback from XYZ’s Corporate University, which hired me to help improve XYZ Corporation’s culture. Yes, the evaluations of my work were outstanding. But, ultimately, the project failed.

I wish I had known then what I know now:

Culture projects always fail. Business projects through culture may succeed.

The Project

XYZ asked me to help in the transformation of XYZ’s corporate culture. Its goal was to establish values of collaboration and excellence throughout the organization. XYZ’s top 10,000 executives from 30 countries would participate. I designed and led the workshops for the top 1,000 executives and their teams.

Some CEOs put their money where their mouth is, but keep their bodies somewhere else. So I asked that every senior officer participate actively in the workshops with his or her team. Not only did they agree, they did it with full commitment.

Behavioral change is a process; it requires practice. So I insisted that every senior executive work with a coach. They agreed, as well. XYZ University trained local consultants to support them.

They did everything I asked, but I didn’t ask for the right things.

My Errors

1. Contract with the corporate university.

I spoke with the CEO eventually, but he did not lead the effort. This created the perception that the CEO ran the business, while the corporate university ran the culture.

2. Lead a culture change project.

I was “the culture guy,” not “the profit guy”. Culture should have been the means; extraordinary business results the end. I failed to persuade executives that cultural change had a higher ROI than business as usual.

3. Set behavioral metrics only.

I did not challenge XYZ leaders to set performance metrics and take responsibility to achieve them. The measure of success became “people gone through the program” rather than business objectives accomplished.

4. Define behaviors for followers.

I did not define the new behaviors as leadership commitments. The pace of the rollout implied that followers had to change before the leaders demonstrated their own change.

5. Focus on workshops and coaching.

I was not able to facilitate any business meetings. People felt pushed to attend activities that they saw as not part of their jobs. Culture became an additional thing to do, as opposed to the way to do everything.

The Lessons

1. Contract with the business leaders.

The energy for change comes from the tension between current and aspired results, a tension that the organization cannot resolve without change. Have the business leaders take accountability for closing the gap.

2. Lead a business transformation project.

Integrate the culture change initiative into the business strategy. Have a logical thread from the new behaviors to the aspired results. Refer to this thread constantly.

3. Set outcome metrics.

Ask the leaders to define what concrete and measurable results they would see if the project succeeded. Use these metrics to assess progress.

4. Start with demonstrations from leaders.

Ask leaders to explain and display the new behaviors before any cascade activities. They don´t have to do it perfectly, but they must show their commitment in action.

5. Focus on business.

Facilitate operational meetings and help people do their real jobs more effectively through the new attitudes and behaviors. Consider workshops and coaching only when there is a pull; that is, when people want to learn how to be even more effective.

Trial and error is an expensive ways to learn. I hope that you can take advantage of my trials to not repeat my errors.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Advertisements