Cultural Commerce Blog

Humanizing Cultural Change Initiatives

Most managers and management consultants recognize the importance of organizational culture, but few have any idea how to support it, evolve it, or change it. A recent Booz & Co report, “Culture’s Role in Enabling Organization Change,” reveled that 60% of C-suite execs surveyed believe that culture is more important than their company’s strategy or operating model, with 51% saying that their culture needed a “major overhaul.” The survey also found, however, that culture isn’t a strategic priority in many companies and that failed cultural change attempts in the past are hindering future cultural transformation initiatives.

Of course, there are nearly an infinite number of reasons for why change initiatives fail. However, one seldom mentioned reason may be that the strategies and tactics used in change initiatives, while effective, are still suboptimal. Why? Because creating cultural change is not a management science, it’s a social science. The tips enumerated in the Booz report serve as apt examples (keeping in mind that the authors of the Booz survey are likely intentionally vague; their views on culture and cultural change are undoubtedly more nuanced than they appear in the report I’m referencing).

Culture diagnostic
Diagnosing your culture and identifying cultural characteristics is a necessary first step in any change initiative. The Booz report suggests that such a diagnostic should be used pinpoint cultural strengths and weaknesses. Under this premise, however, we’ve already created an obstacle to cultural change. By labeling some cultural traits as weaknesses and others as strengths, we’re ostracizing employees whose behaviors don’t conform to our expectations. Yet, there may be valid and commendable reasons for some of the behavior that gives rise to cultural “weakness” that need to be understood from different perspectives before being judged to be right or wrong. For example, a culture of rebelliousness and insubordination might be prized as a culture of autonomy and subsidiarity by some within the organization. Before targeting these attributes for eradication, we need to understand where they come from – because all cultural characteristics emerge from somewhere – and what potential benefits they may produce. It is the hubris of an ignorant manager that assumes that his or her perspective is always normative.

The “critical few” behaviors
As the Booz report notes, concentrating on changing a critical few behaviors rather than a multitude of behaviors often prevents cultural paralysis. Still, human beings are more likely to respond favorably when they understand the bigger picture. So, in attempting to change a critical few behaviors we have to remember to communicate our reasoning for focusing on those particular behaviors, emphasizing that all organizational behaviors are interrelated and interdependent. You’ll never be able to change the “critical few” if employees think those few were chosen based on a narrow agenda.

Employee pride and commitment
“Companies must find ways to connect workers to something larger that they can believe in,” notes the report, “including customer benefits or the satisfaction of beating a benchmark.” No change initiative can succeed without the active support of employees, who absolutely need something larger they can believe in. However, customer benefits or reaching milestones aren’t very large. A clearly defined and articulated corporate purpose, that spells out the benefits of a company to customers and society and sets the benchmarks to be achieved, is necessary to ensure sustainable commitment. Purpose is at the center of human motivation and if companies want to motivate their people, they have to clarify their purpose. This is what the Booz report intends to say, but is something that is said much better in The Clarity Principle by Chatham Sullivan – a psychologist – of Pivot leadership consulting.

Informal peer networks and mentors
The Booz report rightly notes that cultural change needs to be reinforced at every level, but wrongly asserts that culture starts at the top. Culture isn’t something that “starts” anywhere. It’s an emergent property of human social activity that arises whether we like it or not. If management ignores culture altogether, a culture will still develop. Most organizations have numerous subcultures that exist on every level in every department. These cultures and subcultures are reinforced by the rank and file without help or interference from management. Culture does not start with management, it includes management. Management, through its ability to influence structures, systems, and behaviors, has a disproportionate influence on culture, but to say that culture starts at the top is not only fallacious but an obstacle to understanding how real cultural change works.

Last but not least, storytelling (buzz word alert) – my favorite. Having studied theology and the psychology of communications in graduate school, I love storytelling. Indeed, nobody tells stories better than religions. The Booz report is right on in highlighting the importance of storytelling, but their perspective is incomplete. Stories are only part of the story. Religions have been successful storytellers because they don’t just tell stories, they build mythologies (see previous post on mythmaking versus storytelling). A story is a linear, contained narrative that can inspire and motivate. But, a mythology is an ecosystem of narratives that encompasses every aspect of an individual’s life, lifestyle, and culture. Mythologies connect stories into a broader, more comprehensive worldview. A story of an inspirational founder can be hugely motivating, but a mythology about that founder’s worldview can be much more powerful. The story of Jesus, for example, has inspired billions, but it took the Christian mythology created by those who came after Christ is what has allowed Christianity to survive to this day.

Despite a lack of social nuance, I found the Booz & Co report refreshing. I’m always heartened to see culture being taken seriously by corporate execs. However, as a social scientist, many of the insights in these conversations are realizations that came to the humanities hundreds of years ago, and so rather than view cultural change as a management science, I prefer to think of it as a social science.

Thinking Like a Business: Taking Small Nonprofits to the Next Level

Nonprofits, by definition, are purpose-driven organizations. Their mission is their identity, and the change they seek cannot be bought and sold but must be wrought by human hands and human hearts. As such, nonprofits – especially small ones – often adopt a laser-like focus on their work, cobbling together teams of passionate staff and volunteers to do what they can despite resource restrictions, red tape, and societal apathy. In this world, the methods and strategies that could make nonprofits more effective and more efficient are often viewed as a tangential to the core of the organization’s work. This is especially true in small nonprofits that may not have staff trained in business operations, marketing, finance, or organizational management. Some nonprofit leaders might even claim that investing too much time or too many resources on these businessy pursuits is distracting, or worse, unethical. Yet, in actuality, adopting a more business-like mindset in small nonprofits can help attract donors, bolster organization unity, increase efficiency, and ultimately lead to greater impact.

“Small nonprofits can and should act more business-like. After all, they are in business, just in the business of building a better world.”

Although there are many things nonprofits can learn from for-profit businesses, we’ve isolated four simple business practices that small nonprofits can easily and realistically adopt to increase their effectiveness.

1. Understand the difference between strategies and tactics

A strategy is a plan, a framework, a roadmap. A tactic is a method, a campaign, or an activity. Strategies organize your actions, tying them together in a way that ensures they serve your higher-level goals and objectives. Strategies are the blueprints for a structure whereas tactics are the specific methods you will use to build that structure. Tactics are more familiar to people than strategies, and as such are often perilously used without a strategy at all. However, to use an oversimplified marketing example, an advertisement (tactic) that isn’t informed by a higher vision (strategy) probably won’t align with consumers’ needs or their existing perceptions. Consequently, it’ll be far less effective than one that is specifically designed to accomplish certain objectives, takes the audience’s attitudes into account, and is rolled out in an orchestrated manner in conjunction with other initiatives that reinforce the message. Everything an organization does should support the organization’s long-term goals and short-term objectives. If it does not, its effectiveness will be muted and temporary.

2. Take your technology seriously

Developing a well-informed technology strategy is critical to success in today’s digital world. Many small nonprofits are burdened with old, cumbersome technology that hinders rather than aids productivity. The historical price of technology has led to the widespread perception among smaller organizations that investing in new hardware and software would be too costly. Productivity-enhancing tools, however, are becoming increasingly commoditized and therefore increasingly affordable. Free cloud storage and collaboration tools make it easy to stay connected in the office, at home, or on the go. Extremely affordable onor relationship management tools are more user-friendly than ever, making it easy to track progress, identify opportunities, and engage prospects. Content management systems like WordPress have made good-looking, easy-to-update websites cheap. And, of course, social media allow organizations to reach loads of people in very personal ways very quickly for nearly nothing. The list of ways that technology can help enhance productivity are innumerable. Taking the value of technology seriously and looking at your organization’s IT needs strategically – What do we need now? What will we need in the future? How will it help us achieve our goals? – is absolutely essential in our technologized society.

3.  Don’t be afraid to invest in integrated marketing 

The old saying “it takes money to make money” holds true even for nonprofits. Although their goal isn’t to make money, NPOs need money in order to operate and deliver their services. Taking a strategic and integrated approach to marketing can have a huge impact on fundraising success. Fundraising initiatives should be grounded in a broader marketing strategy that clearly articulates the organizations mission, understands all of the organization’s stakeholders on a deep level, and leverages a variety of different media and methods to reach the right audiences and the right time. This means that NPOs have to spend time defining the organization’s brand, researching their audiences and the market, and architecting approaches and tactics that intentionally support the organization’s goals. It means thinking about how you frame your argument and position your cause. It means talking to your audience not yourself. It means engaging audiences consistently across multiple touchpoints over time. It means understanding your competition. It means understanding the culture, where it’s going and how you fit into it. For-profit businesses invest a lot of time and money considering these types of issues. It behoves nonprofits to invest some time and some amount of money to do the same. The potential return on investment is enormous.

4. Leaders need to be proactive in unifying and motivating staff and volunteers

For most small nonprofits, their staff and volunteers are the front-lines and face of their organization. It is thus paramount that these stakeholders are empowered and equipped to evangelize and represent your organization and your cause. For this to happen, these constituencies need to be unified. They need to know what the organization stands for and how it plans to effect change. They need to feel like they are a part of a community of like-minded people. They need to feel a connection to the organization itself, not just the cause. They need to know that their contribution is meaningful, valued, and makes a difference. Interestingly, instituting new IT or marketing initiatives can help catalyze renewed interest and zeal. Sometimes, however, more targeted tactics like appreciation dinners, awards, and events are necessary. Ultimately, however, nothing does more to inspire people than visionary leadership, and there is no strategy or tactic that can sustainably motivate staff and volunteers in the absence of strong leadership. As such, while all of the above points should be concerns of a nonprofit’s Board of Directors, keeping the execs of an organization accountable is vital.

Despite the popularity of social enterprises, we at Culture Concepts believe that nonprofits will continue to play the primary role in creating social change. However, companies that take corporate citizenship and social business models seriously are stealing attention and resources. They have been able to do so in part because of their familiarity with basic business best practices. Small nonprofits can do the same. Indeed, as our culture continues to rapidly change, the small NPOs that can adapt as quickly as their for-profit counterparts will be the ones who have the greatest impact. Small nonprofits can and should act more business-like. After all, they are in business, just in the business of building a better world.

Reversing Social Inertia to Achieve Social Change

At some point in their lifespan, most companies have to drive new policies through their workforce or introduce new products into their marketplace, both of which often prove to be formidable tasks that can take years to accomplish. The success of such initiatives hinge on a company’s ability to effectively overcome social inertia – the tendency for groups of people to resist change – to transform the attitudes and behaviors of their employees or their consumers. As such, large companies today take cultural transformation and change management very seriously, and many rely on the expertise of in-house professionals and external consultants to make sure they can not only adapt to, but influence, the cultural shifts taking place inside and outside of their organization.

For what is likely the majority of non-profit organizations, however, managing and directing cultural change is a distant aspiration, if one at all. Small and medium sized NPOs often have a singular focus on their charitable work and resist spending resources on any businessey hocus pocus that falls outside the scope of their immediate mission. Nevertheless, social inertia is one of the primary hinderances to social change, and unless people’s resistance to new ideas and methods can be overcome, the social change that purpose-driven organizations envision will remain merely visionary. For example, an NGO that gives irrigation systems to sub-Saharan African towns might find that in order to get locals to use the systems they first need to teach people to think differently about the meaning of community and the importance of sharing.  Similarly, a healthcare IT organization might find that in order to enhance the quality of care they first need to demonstrate the value of new technologies to caregivers who may believe that the proven way of doing things is the best way. In these examples, what is hindering success isn’t just a lack of information, but prevailing cultural values and norms that are at odds with positive change (fully acknowledging that attaching a normative value to change is problematic). In order to overcome these obstacles to change, NPOs need to develop a more nuanced and systematic understanding of cultural change and social inertia – one which resembles models that for-profit organizations have been using for years.

“Social inertia is one of the primary hinderances to social change, and unless people’s resistance to new ideas and methods can be overcome, the social change that purpose-driven organizations envision will remain merely visionary.”

The concept of social inertia is broad, describing phenomena ranging from the tendency to form and favor in-groups – stable categories of friends and associates that you identify with – to status quo bias – the tendency to default to the current state of affairs – to system justification – the tendency to proactively justify the current state of affairs. These sociopsychological dispositions emerge from the evolutionary need to seek stability and certainty. It’s hard to grow a family, tribe, or civilization without some degree of security. Sometimes, however, this stability needs to be upended in order to drive positive social change through an organization or a community. Of course, overcoming a culture’s resistance to change is no small task. Cultural transformation initiatives require organizations to understand of the roots of people’s resistance to change and develop hypotheses about how to address them. They will then seek to create a series of long-term programs to disseminate new ideas to a given set of audiences in a way that will encourage them to think and behave differently while promoting similar changes among their peers. It isn’t enough to just target individuals; good cultural transformation programs will create mechanisms that foster group change as well. Culture, after all, lives at the social level.

Although such initiatives may seem daunting to small and medium sized NPOs, there are a number of organizations that have proven the importance of fighting social inertia to accomplish social change. The Center for Educational Innovation in New York is a schools support organization that provides advice and resources to public and charter schools. Understanding the importance of transforming stagnant school cultures, part of their work focuses on developing school leaders, increasing teacher collaboration, and incentivizing and mentoring educators. Although the benefits of these programs are hard to measure and sometimes take years to materialize, CEI’s commitment to changing the social environment of schools has made them one of the most respected and revered educational organizations in New York City. Another organization that understands the importance of overcoming social inertia in their work is Seeds of Peace, which runs a camp in Maine where Israeli and Palestinian youth come together to discuss their perspectives. The ultimate goal of the organization is to, literally, create seeds of peace that can eventually grow into positions of influence on both sides of the conflict. Of course, this process of change takes many years, but the organization is already seeing its former campers ascend into important positions in media, journalism, law, politics, and other fields that are critical to overcoming the social inertia that has hindered the peace process. These organizations understand that the social change they seek will not be possible unless they first overcome social inertia and shift the deep-seeded cultural mindsets that have barricaded progress.

NPOs seeking to fight social inertia, whether as a core component of their mission or a prerequisite for accomplishing it, shouldn’t feel guilty about looking to for-profit businesses as models. Many corporations, in their HR and marketing initiatives, have made a science out of changing minds, shifting paradigms, and influencing perceptions. Here are a few things for organizations to keep in mind when trying to move a culture at rest.

1. Research first. Before you can begin to move hearts and minds, you need to understand those hearts and minds. Make sure you know your audiences and their social contexts well before engaging them. An object at rest won’t move unless you know how much and what type of force you need to overcome its resistance. Lots of organizations expend a tremendous amount of resources and accomplish nothing because they didn’t understand the problem to begin with.

2. An object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted on by another force. In the context of social inertia, visionary leadership or external crises are some of the most common forces that catalyze change. Since nobody wants to depend on crisis and catastrophe, NPOs should focus on becoming visionary leaders themselves and fostering visionary leadership in their spheres of influence. The vision itself should be a powerful idea or set of ideas that capitalizes on a culture’s existing beliefs and presuppositions to motivate audiences.

3. Transformation can be scary. The human need for stability causes most people to be suspicious of change. Barraging audiences with alarmist warnings or revolutionary rhetoric can do more harm than good at times by triggering defensive, system justifying responses. Sometimes the best way to transform a culture is to convince people that the changes are slight or consistent with the status quo. Sometimes the best way to overcome people’s bias towards the status quo isn’t to try to controvert that bias, but to use it.

4. Emotional appeal alone won’t get it done. There are many consultants who will tell you that the best way to change people’s behavior is to pull at their heart strings. However, nobody is a purely emotional creature. Ideas and programs that change cultures are ideas that both leverage people’s emotions and unify those emotions with reason and logic. A person can believe in something passionately, but if their beliefs cause cognitive dissonance with what they think and know, they’ll likely be short lived.

5. Cultural change is slow. Overcoming social inertia takes time and even once a culture starts moving, the movement is usually slow. Be prepared for a long, protracted effort. Opposition is inevitable. But, nothing great was ever accomplished by those that stood idly by. If NPOs really want to make a difference, they’ll have to do more than simply feed the homeless in Detroit or distribute condoms in Africa. They’ll also have to address the social realities that give rise to these conditions and confront the systems that prevent sustainable change.

Unlocking The Power of Metadata

Organizations had barely wrapped their minds around the concept of Big Data before it was overshadowed by its progeny, metadata. Metadata – the new Big Data buzzword – has a number of definition, the most common and etymologically accurate of which is data about data. It isn’t enough – some say – to have a deluge of data, you have to have a deluge of data about your deluge of data. It’s like a dream about a dream, or a painting about a painting. How meta. How hipster.

Of course, there is a significant value add that metadata can provide, especially to SMBs, but only if it’s managed correctly and interpreted accurately. Large companies can easily gather data about their data’s data through costly or proprietary software solutions that can monitor everything from the factory floor to the company Facebook profile. Smaller organizations, however, often do not have such luxuries. Beyond their lack of scale, their inability to leverage value adders like metadata puts them at an additional competitive disadvantage. Although some SMBs have begun investing in Big Data tools that help them monitor and analyze various data points, telling them that they now need to invest in additional tools to give them data about their data might sound like an outrageous value added selling scheme. Nevertheless, metadata can have a huge impact throughout an organization.

“It isn’t enough to have a deluge of data, you have to have a deluge of data about your deluge of data.”

For example, say a popular New York lunch spot called Jake’s Grill wants to increase their corporate catering orders, but they don’t know how to identify the right companies to maximize their cold calling efforts. It would be tremendously helpful if Jake’s Grill knew 1) what companies in their area needed corporate catering and 2) what companies had employees that liked their style of food or were already restaurant patrons. They might try one of those drop-your-business-card-in-the-fishbowl-and-win-lunch-for-your-office contests. They could also have the floor manager circle the dining room and get to know the customers. These are both traditional approaches to gathering the data that Jake’s requires, and both could be helpful in helping the restaurant identify leads. Another approach, one that is truly data-driven, would be to regularly mine their website analytics for insights. Most web analytics tools – like the free and ubiquitous Google Analytics – provide a tremendous amount of data, like how many pageviews your site gets. They also often record a tremendous amount of data about that data, like what networks those viewers come from. Because many corporations use their own networks, the name of the company will be recorded when their employees view our site at work. This data not only helps Jake’s identify hot leads but it also gives them the ammunition to make a more powerful pitch. Now, Jake’s sales team calls one of these companies, they can say more than so-and-so dropped their business card in our fishbowl or we know so-and-so comes here for lunch once in a while. Instead, they can say that they know your employees come here to eat and dozens of them check out our specials online every afternoon, so forth and so on.

In this example, the web analytics software was already gathering the data Jake’s Grill needed. In many cases, however, there isn’t an easy way to capture the depth of information that’s required. While I usually don’t get too self-promotional in these posts, Culture Concepts is passionate about helping SMBs stay in front of technological change. We can help identify what data points are important and design affordable systems and software to help smaller organizations gather data and data about that data. We bring in a small team of independent software architects to help design and develop cheap, custom solutions to help growing businesses get on top of the digital deluge. If a lack of information is holding your company back, shoot us an email.

The Importance of Future Focused Strategy

I recently attended a number of panel discussions hosted by the World Science Festival, a weekend-long series of lectures and events intended to promote an interest in new scientific developments. In almost every case, the audience was comprised mostly of students, teachers, and lay enthusiasts like myself. The mainstream business crowd was noticeably – but not surprisingly – absent, despite the Festival’s high profile and convenient schedule. At the discussions I attended, a myriad of topics were presented and debated, with topics ranging from the future of brain mapping and the psychology of time. Although these topics don’t seem immediately germane to corporate marketing and technology strategy, I would argue that they are – or should be – extremely relevant to any company that wants to position itself for long-term growth.

Although a lot of companies claim to be forward-looking, their horizon quite often usually only extends one to five years into the future – especially when it comes to SMBs. Given the rapidity of technological change today, it makes sense that many organizations would be afraid to predict developments too far into the future much less invest in preparing for potentialities. However, even if companies are not prepared to spend money developing proactive strategies to emerging technologies and ideas, they should still be aware of them for a number of important reasons. On one hand, reacting to disruptive technological or scientific discoveries and inventions forces companies to spend money in ways that won’t give them a competitive edge; if you’re reacting to a trend, you’re already playing from behind. Conversely, being proactive can help give you that competitive edge by having methods or technologies in your arsenal that your competitors don’t. Being an early supporter or adopter of new developments also companies to frame and control the conversation, giving them credibility and leverage when a new method or invention goes mainstream.

“…being proactive can help give you that competitive edge by having methods or technologies in your arsenal that your competitors don’t…”

The business applications of brain mapping, for example, are legion. Not only does it have implication for market segmentation, but it could lead to exponential advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence. A company positioned to take advantage of such developments ahead of its competitors would have a tremendous advantage in terms of computing, analytical, and marketing capabilities. Likewise, new research in how we perceive time as a construct could help companies find cutting-edge ways to enhance workplace productivity and optimize consumer experiences. To many companies, these ideas may sound ethereal and impractical, but a deep understanding of this scientific work filtered through a keen interdisciplinary lens can generate creative ways of preparing for and capitalizing on such advancements long before your competitors even hear about them.

Of course, there is risk in investing in new and emerging ideas. Their application to your business could be highly theoretical and unproven. The time to ROI could be longer than executives are willing to bear, and the potential for failure would be significantly higher than more traditional investments. Nevertheless, given the relentless march of technological and scientific progress, what seems like science fiction today can quickly become reality tomorrow.

Contemporary businesses are constantly being disrupted by technological and scientific change, and the only way to ensure that your organization stays ahead of the curve is to invest resources into seeing what’s beyond it. It is, perhaps, not enough in our day and age to just be forward-looking. Tomorrow’s organizations are going to have to be future-focused. They will have to be curious, brave, and bold. They will have to be fearless in the face of mind-blowing, life-altering discoveries, and they will have to embrace the role of champion and innovator or risk joining the ranks of the has-beens and also-rans.