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Altered States: Why to Change Your Organizational Culture and How

Written by Terri Wallin

Peter Senge, called the “Strategist of the Century” by the Journal of Business Strategy, popularized the concept of the learning organization nearly a decade ago. One of its core tenets was that organizational entities are governed by the same laws of natural selection as biological ones. Like it or not, adapt or perish is the law of the land; organizations and people who are flexible and highly adaptive will prosper more than those who shackle themselves to “tried and true’ traditions and lumber ponderously to the financial boneyard.

Altered States_Why_How to Change Culture_ shutterstock_165555542IQ tests measure people’s reasoning and problem solving abilities. People with higher IQ’s process and interpret information with higher speed and accuracy than people with lower IQ’s. Organizations that embrace learning possess higher IQ’s and have developed corporate cultures that read the seismic shifts of the economy. These organizations quickly tap the collective brainpower of their employees to mitigate the damage or seize an advantage.

What is your organization’s IQ? How does the executive transform an organization mired in psycho-sclerosis (the hardening of the attitudes) into something more culturally adroit and nimble?

Most executives understand when cultures need transformation but few have mastered how to change it. The word “transformation” is overshadowed with suspicion and misunderstanding and many executives avoid it like the plague. Transformation in its easiest definition is to alter the current state and in order to alter the current state of an organization its culture has to change. And that requires direction and strong leadership by the chief executive.

Because it is easier to make incremental changes, most executive leaders lean toward incremental versus transformational change. However incremental change doesn’t transform the culture, hence the results are usually minimal and often not sustained over time.

National experts have devised formulas to transform an organization and there are similar components in all of them. The Transformation EquationTM, asserts that the first step in the formula is for the chief executive to have a compelling vision. In 4 Steps to a Successful Business Transformation, a Forbes Insights article in 2014, author Kasia Moreno concurs that “getting the right strategic vision is critical”.

Clearly articulated compelling visions are the first step in organizational transformation but this is not a solo performance. Vision must ally with strategic planning and detailed and successful implementation to transform culture with purposeful and long-lasting results. Boots must hit the ground. The problem is organizational homeostasis or the tendency to dig deep into our own rut. Creating and implementing compelling visions seems like an uncomfortable diversion from battling operational brush fires. But compelling visions with successful implementation is necessary if we are to navigate through transformational change.

For example we know that digital age is progressively throttling the way things were and it is incumbent for leaders to think in different ways about how their products and services can be delivered. Organizations who embrace this transformation will easily outdistance their competitors, those that don’t, won’t.

How does an executive shift to a transformational mindset?

  1. Typically what drives a transformational need is the concern for organizational or personal obsolescence. Don’t wait until then; just decide to try it now.
  2. Bring to mind obstacles that keep you from taking time for envisioning and strategizing and identify why those obstacles are more compelling?
  3. Think through the benefits of a transformation – the rewards to the customer, employees and the executive team; long sustaining gains – return on sweat equity, etc.
  4. Place yourself in the mindset of the customer – how could your products and services be delivered more effectively in the eyes of the customer? What product and service enhancements would customers buy that would put you in a favorable position in the marketplace? What are your customers saying about your organization – what would or do they like; what do they dislike?
  5. Build your vision from the customer’s perspective – pretend you are the customer, it might make it easier to envision possibilities. Get excited about the vision, it makes it easier to accomplish!
  6. Engage your team in the vision and together plan and implement the vision.

It is a choice to embrace an altered state, i.e. a transformation. Once you are successful with a transformation, your organization is equipped to replicate the success. Transformation provides a built-in learning opportunity for everyone in your organization, which makes the organization nimble and eager to take on new things.

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