Culture is often described as "the way we do things around here." In fact it is more complex. It is also feelings, underlying beliefs, values, history, and assumptions about an organization. Those are rooted in experiences, stories, and behaviour patterns sometimes decades or centuries old. The culture tells people what is and is not okay. Culture is enduring, difficult to develop or reshape.
The pursuit of management excellence has many labels - reform, renewal, modernization, transformation, re-alignment - but all are about changing the behaviours that characterize Public Service management culture. For purposes of illustration this guide focuses on Modern Comptrollership, but it is generic in nature and its approach can be applied to any effort to change management culture.
No single approach can fit all. Instead, every organization needs its own model of change corresponding to its needs and issues. When change efforts fail, it is common to blame organizational resistance but this is an inadequate explanation. Change goes wrong for systemic reasons: poor vision, inadequate communications, insufficient planning and resources, failure to make a compelling case, and inconsistent messages with leaders not following through.
Change models fall into three types: top-down; transformational leadership; and strategic approaches. Overall experience shows that with careful and appropriate application.
Transformational leadership: In his latest book, Managing Politically, McGill University Professor Henry Mintzberg looked at three federal departments. He has long argued that change bubbles upward. "You can't drive change down an organization," he says. "You facilitate the situation so that change can come up. Create a climate where people can individually and collectively think for themselves, take initiatives, and build interesting things. Change grows from the grass roots, where people know what needs to be done."
Transformational leadership works by influencing the values and priorities of followers, thereby motivating them to achieve more. Leaders inspire followers through the mission, optimism, enthusiasm and emotional appeal. They provide personal support and encouragement, show concern and offer coaching. They set a personal example, sacrifice for the group and show good ethics. They challenge people to view problems from new perspectives and to find new solutions, while making it safe for them to express negative emotions and business concerns. Followers then connect more to the mission, seek ways to improve their performance and thus enhance the organizational culture.
Of course, despite the cover stories in magazines, not all great leaders are larger than life. Many prefer responsible, behind-the-scenes actions. They lead by quiet example and by working through others.
Strategic approaches: Perhaps the best-known author on change is Professor John Kotter. He lays out an eight-step strategy:
- Establish a sense of urgency.
- Create the guiding coalition.
- Develop a vision and strategy.
- Communicate the change vision.
- Empower employees for broad-based action.
- Generate short-term wins.
- Consolidate gains and produce more change.
- Anchor new approaches in the culture.
And although cultural change is critical to long-lasting change, Kotter puts it at the end rather than the start of the process. "Culture changes only after you have successfully altered people's actions," he says, "after the new behaviour produces some group benefit for a period of time, and people see the connection between the new actions and the performance improvement."
Find a change model to fit the situation
A top-down approach apparently can be effective, but only if the leader controls the levers of recruitment, promotion, incentives and dismissal - and at the same time pays attention to the people factor and is open to feedback. New behaviour will eventually be accepted and become the culture.
In another view, culture change comes through changing the way things are done in an organization so that, over time, people will change as well.
A third view holds that if you change how individuals feel and provide them with new experiences, they will eventually adopt the new behaviours, leading to the emergence of a new culture.
What matters is to find what works best in the specific situation, given your understanding of all the factors.
Stages of culture change
Common themes emerged from the interviews with executives and the review of management literature, advising that significant change in complex organizations requires:
- strong leadership, a vision, and a change team or guiding coalition charged with implementation;
- perseverance and commitment to follow through;
- understanding of the current culture, where the resistance will come from; and
- the courage to tackle resistance head-on.
Stage 1: Before anything else, leaders must build an understanding of the organization's current culture by collecting information on the types of behaviours being practised. In other words, they have to understand their own leadership style, the organization's culture and where it is now.
Stage 2: Next is developing a vision of where the organization should be, and performing a gap analysis; this reveals where the organization falls short of the vision. To fill the gaps, design a strategic plan that articulates the vision, outlines priorities for improvement and establishes measurable targets with an eye to early successes. A team must be established, trained and mandated to implement the change. Ultimately, the whole organization must be involved, although specifics will vary according to the scope of the plan and the nature of the organization.
Stage 3: Next comes implementing the plan: The deputy/head and the guiding coalition must make the case for change, communicate again and again (and again), and build capacity.
Stage 4: At the same time, there is a critical transitional period in which people "let go" of one set of behaviours as they move to another. This is the stage where many change initiatives begin to lose momentum. It's important to celebrate wins and early successes, communicate widely and often, and find innovative ways of motivating people to adopt the new behaviours, processes and systems.
Stage 5: Finally, following up. It's important to keep measuring progress, seek feedback, and continue to adjust and improve. Over time, the leadership must build a deeper understanding, update the strategy and get better at implementation.