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How can I Change this Machine

Organizational Culture Case: How can I Change this Machine?

  • 01 December 2016
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

In my last post, I introduced you to the machine maintenance company MM that faced increasing competition and had to become more profitable. However, the CEO’s response was to push hard for more efficiency and focus on the numbers which led to micro-management. Combined with their current culture tendency to organize everything in a phonebook of rules and procedures, they were slowing down, and they felt stifled.

In the Change Circle with this division’s executive team, we discussed their OCAI culture profile and what needed to change. These executives blamed the CEO and said he needed to change. That would make the biggest difference to the company.

The division director said he’d talked with the CEO many times, but he couldn’t convince him to let go of tight control and micro-management. Of course, the first step is to talk with the CEO and suggest executive coaching to work on the CEO’s deep beliefs and fears. And yes, the CEO might do better after an excellent leadership training and see the rational advantages of “letting go.”

But that would be just talking about it - trying to convince the other to change. What could happen if this division’s executive team changed their own behaviors? If they actually did something differently?

Don’t Talk, but Do Differently

The director could take responsibility for the situation and change his behavior, instead of just talking to the CEO which didn’t produce any effects. He could consider responses like:

  • Negotiate a date range (“second half of the month” instead on the 15th sharp) to deliver the numbers and claim trust and respect for his professional autonomy as a division director.
  • Or, not deliver the numbers but reassure the CEO that turnover was all right and he would get the Excel sheet as soon as he got time to finish it (but he was too busy making money right now)...
  • Or, prove how the turnover increased after letting go of Pennywise regulations that took too much time.
  • Simply abrogate some detailed regulations without asking permission in advance and prove how well it works.
  • Take responsibility and “shield” his division from the CEO, giving his people more space to perform and surprise the CEO with great performance.

How about that? “That would be shocking…!”, they said. Yes, but it could make a difference. Or it would get him fired.

Not asking for permission but just doing something and asking for forgiveness afterward (if needed), is more associated with their desired Create (Adhocracy) Culture. How about trying some of these changes?

If you feel a strong “No, we can’t do that” - it means that you are touching on a core value or culture norm. In this case, they held strong Collaborate and Control culture values that dictated: “Be nice to the CEO. The poor man is scared, and we want to reassure him. Besides, we do everything together so we cannot bypass him and just do something differently without consulting him.”

On the other hand - action speaks louder than words. The management team had to decide for themselves. It scared and excited them to think about taking ownership and changing yourself: to become the change you want to see. To do something, instead of just talking or complaining.

Current Core Beliefs

While discussing this situation, they realized they shared key beliefs that kept the situation stuck:

  1. Everything must be uniform. Uniformity is king. So, follow the procedure.
  2. Control keeps the danger away. There is danger outside of uniformity.
  3. Details are important because the devil is in the details.

I asked them to take a moment to “breathe in” these collective beliefs. What did it feel like to be working in a workplace founded on these beliefs?

Coming from a technical background, the division’s managing team waived this exercise away. But the two HR-professionals that were also attending said: “It feels tight and burdensome. It is the opposite of inspiring and wanting to get things done”.

And they all nodded... Yes, right. These beliefs restrained them while they wanted to conquer their challenges and improve performance in a downturn market.

Helpful Questions to Change

But they were always checking in the back of their minds: Are we doing things the right way? This was their current culture. To change successfully, they needed to ask the opposite:

Are we doing the right things?

They engaged in a dialogue and agreed to always ask this empowering question: Am I doing the right things? Are you doing the right things?

Keeping an open mind for them meant to be asking things like:

  • Should we focus on details or move quickly with this prospect, and work with rough lines?
  • Can we make an exception to speed up this project?
  • After the project is done, can we abrogate the rule or simplify it to speed up other projects as well?
  • Is uniformity client-focused or does it serve our needs of control and safety?
  • Which details are crucial and do we need to ensure?
  • Can we go ahead while waiting for an official signature?
  • Can you trust me with this, knowing that I am a professional…?, etc.

Resolutions what to Do

They decided that accountability and autonomy were needed as low in the organization as possible and as high as necessary. That aligned more with their desired Create (Adhocracy) and Compete (Market) culture types with an external orientation.

They decided to give their location managers more space as of now, emphasizing their qualities of being entrepreneurial and accountable. The division’s managing team decided to stop micromanaging and to role-model “professional empowerment.” They realized that they needed the courage to do this. The courage to let go… And they felt a little scared, just like the CEO.

They agreed to these things:

  • Daily ask yourself and others (and when taking decisions): Are we doing the right things?
  • Respect and reward the location manager’s position as intended: a fully autonomous professional.
  • Stop executing detailed prescriptions, reconsider what we could let go. What is the worst thing that can happen? Is that acceptable?
  • Preserve a bottom line of procedures and quality standards that are non-negotiable but try to let go of non-essentials. We’ll make a list of essential procedures.
  • Allow our staff to deliver numbers over the last two weeks of each month (instead of the 15th sharp)
  • Reconsider the decisions and documents that need our signature. All other things will not be signed by us anymore. We’ll explain this to our people once we have the list.
  • Be honest in meetings with employees, saying things like: “I don’t know” to role-model learning behaviors, giving others permission to learn too.

This case shows the effects of the dark side of Control (Hierarchy) culture and a too-tightly controlling CEO. They had a typical focus on “Doing things the Right way” instead of “Doing the Right Things.” It felt shocking for them even to consider taking ownership - What can I do myself? This is an empowering question, but more typical for the opposite Create (Adhocracy) and Compete (Market) culture types. The management team gained many insights, like this common one: We tend to talk - instead of doing something about it. They went back to MM, supporting each other to be courageous and more autonomous. They are still in the process of changing the organization, one step at a time.

Questions for you - please be courageous and share some answers in the comments below:

  • How do you role-model current behaviors?
  • How are you currently part of the culture...?
  • Is there anything you would dare to do without a proper signature?
  • Do you dare to make a visible but useful exception to a rule?
  • Do you dare to say No to the CEO?
  • As a professional, do you feel accountable for your results?
  • Do you feel comfortable - knowing that everything is controlled by the CEO? Is it reassuring, in a way?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences…

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2016. All rights reserved.