In the 2018 Btoes Insights study “the Global state ofoperation excellence” 53.1% or respondents say that changingthe company culture is the most important thing to address. Oneof the most critical challenges is to get a leadershipunderstanding and buy-in (23.2%). Popular terms are “walk thetalk” and “act the change”, all to get the employees, not “wantingchange” to change by themselves, to change.
In this article, let’s reflect on what is leadership buy-in actuallymeans. What leadership is required for a desire to change thecompany culture? I will argue that the key root cause for failure tosustain cultural changes sits with the inability to effectivelydemand, to ask for, and coach the behaviors and methods youwant to be part of the new culture.
I celebrated my 20 year work anniversary in a large corporatefirm just this week. All that career I have been working in productdevelopment. I had operational roles, like project manager anddevelopment group lead, and of the last ten years I spent sevenyears coaching leaders and product developers to improve theirways of working. In the last two years, I went back to projectmanagement, now applying my own advice – and learning goeson. When you apply your own advice, trying to accelerate theproduct development in your teams, you are in a high-pressurecooker that sharpens your behaviors and methods. It is a surebet you also learn something about how cultural change works.
But why bother? You could say. a project team is Not the fullorganization so changing that small part will not impact the fullorganization just like that, is it? You are right on that. the thing is,I did learn a very important thing about how change works.When I was coaching leaders to help them change the ways ofworking in their teams, I tended too to tell them they had to “walkthe talk”. I sometimes felt frustrated because “they” didn’t andtherefore changes went slow, two steps forward, one step back.
Reading books, joining classes and workshops and visitingconferences, such as the Lean Product and ProcessDevelopment Exchange (LPPDE), combined with seeing the actual workwhile coaching leaders and product developers, I got a deepunderstanding of both methods and the behaviors that makeproduct development tick. the ideas on how to effectively runthe front-end of an R&D project did shape clearly in my mind.
When working with my project teams, I notice that these clearideas are essential to get the team to work in a different way.as I fully understand what is needed (e.g. to push the decisionlater, until after the knowledge is created) and why (because youthen are less likely to screw up the project because of rework) Ican effectively guide my team to learn rapidly and capture theirlearning concisely to keep everyone aligned. human as I am I domake many errors, but I noticed I rarely forget to apply essentialaspects of the methods and behaviors to make my projectseffective – just because the key points are clearly anchoredwithin.
So. What does all of that say about how leadership buy-in? Itsays that “buying in” does not stop with agreeing to the direction.Most cultural change programs have a direction that is hard todisagree with anyhow (who would disagree to “a quality firstculture” for example?). What we need to have are leaders whoanchor within the methods and behaviors that belong to the newculture. We need them to create a deep understanding aboutwhat those are in the context of the work of their team. a team ofquality engineers, mechanical development engineers, or projectmanagers perhaps. It is the leader of the team who instills thenew behavior and the new methods by asking for it. as easy asthat!
With that, the complexity to manage with operational excellenceshifts from high-level, top-down communication efforts andinspirational sessions for key leaders to helping the leaders,especially those closest to where the actual work is performed,anchor the understanding of the newly required behaviors andmethods. The next step is then to get leaders ask for themethods and behaviors.
That might sound easy, but it is at least as challenging asanchoring the understanding. In general, leaders ask questionsin the WHAT domain. They would tell the mechanicaldevelopment engineer to make the part wall thicker as they havelearned in earlier projects that too thin walls lead to issues withsink marks or whatever else. Now, as we are looking tosustainably change culture, we seek to ask questions in theHOW domain. Questions that instill a certain method, order ofwork and related behavior, for example s/he could ask what isthe knowledge that supports the choice of wall thickness ifknowledge based design is what s/he is after.
Coming back to my frustration about leaders not “walking thetalk”, I now realize that I didn’t invest enough time in ensuring theleaders understood in full what the new direction meant for theirown teams: what methods do we want the team members touse? What are the key points of those? What behaviors am Ilooking for? Using the “communication decks” provided topdown,I only scratched the surface: I got them to buy in to themessage, but failed to anchor the context-specific key pointswithin their minds. In turn, many leaders were not asking theirteam members to apply the new methods and behaviors step-by-step, thereby maintaining the status quo.
Status quo is not where we need to be. Let’s turn it around andmake that leadership buy-in happen for real!
This article was earlier published as part of the 2018 BTOES Insights Study.
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