Culture Emerges from COVID

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A ‘Podtext’ Discussion with Jeff Grimshaw and IC Beyond’s Mike Klein

Looking around the corner with two pros who have worked with organizational culture and communication for decades:

Jeff Grimshaw of MGStrategy joins Mike Klein of Changing The Terms, a co-founder of IC Beyond. 

MIKE

In all of the talk of the pandemic and its impact on business, one topic that has yet to be talked about — but one that remains systemic, overarching, and responsive to major change — is that of culture.  I’m joined today by Jeff Grimshaw of US-based MGStrategy, a consultancy focused on driving beneficial culture change in large enterprises.

JEFF

Thanks, Mike. I’m excited about having this conversation with you on this topic. But also: I am enthusiastic about the idea of podtexts. I listen to lots of podcasts, usually while running. But at 1.2x speed or higher because I am impatient. Given a choice, I prefer to read podcast transcripts…so this is a cool way to GET THERE FASTER.

MIKE

Likewise – both about this topic and about podtexting with you as I’ve read a bit of what you’ve written on culture.  And the idea of starting with the transcript is kind of like the Stephen Covey concept of “starting with the end in mind” in a very literal way.

JEFF

Good point. And “starting with the end in mind” might also be a good way to enter the topic about culture. Because lots of organizations don’t do that at all. They make investments in check-the-box, culture-related activities for their own sake, without any clarity about how those activities will help to produce important business outcomes. The underlying, usually unstated philosophy is “culture is something that is HR-owned and senior leader-supported.” But when you start with the end in mind, when you see clearly the link between culture and business performance, you realize that it only works when culture is senior leader-owned and HR/Corp Comms-supported.

MIKE

Agree. And that brings us nicely to 2020.  It seemed that business culture experienced a convulsive year – with turbulence coming from immediate pressures to survive and optimize, uncertainty about what was coming next, and the extent to which leaders and employees were behaving with any consistency whatsoever

JEFF

Yes. I had a candid conversation recently with a VP of organizational effectiveness at a large company. He said that when COVID hit, they set aside a whole bunch of their “culture agenda.” But now they feel like they are getting back to a point where they can resume them. I said: “If what you were doing with culture could be set aside during COVID, that’s probably a good indication those activities were of dubious strategic value.” That’s true for anyone: If you’re looking around the corner to a post-pandemic future, and your plan is to simply dust off the portfolio of culture-related activities you set on the shelf these past 9 months or so, you probably haven’t learned what you needed to learn.

MIKE 

My suspicion was that this wasn’t the only large company where the “cultural agenda” was “set aside”. 

JEFF

For sure. But the upside I’m seeing is this: Lots of organizations, of necessity, demonstrated unprecedented collaboration, agility, and flexibility when the pandemic hit. Now they have seen what’s possible and are trying to figure out how to avoid snapping back to old patterns of behavior in the “next normal.” That culture challenge is an amazing conversation to be a participant in right now. That’s a conversation that many C-Suite operators are eager and ready for. And it’s always better when operators are pulling culture-related support from corp comms and HR, instead of corp comms and HR having to push the conversation.

MIKE

There are those who now realize that a conscious culture is key to emerging from the 2020 drama into a more sustainable place – those who improved and who embraced it.

JEFF

Let’s welcome them to the Enlightenment! A few years ago, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said “culture is our leading indicator of future performance.” That’s a reflection of the school of thought that says we need to treat culture like we treat other important leading indicators of the lagging indicators that determine whether C-Suite execs are bonused or fired. The other school continues to favor the feel-good, HR-driven bucket of culture activities. I think we’ll see that COVID helped to further separate the two schools.

MIKE

Mr. Nadella knows a few things about repositioning a culture – moving from the mentality of a monopolist towards something more creative and competitive.

JEFF

Exactly. He said “We need to go from a culture of know-it-alls to a culture of learn-it-alls.” That’s actually a pretty damned big shift. But their valuation has tripled since he began that effort in earnest. So, they literally shifted culture as a source of competitive advantage. 

MIKE

That does sound like it’s measurable and tangible – that you can combine performance units, organizational language and business intent into measurable “learn-it-all” performance which can also be aggregated up to the enterprise level.  

JEFF

Right. That reframe changes the conversation inside the organization. That can have a big impact if you make it stick. When people care more about being “effective” than “right,” it unleashes lots of potential to adapt and grow.

MIKE

It doesn’t just change the conversation – it allows it to be separated into several crucial parts: what are our cultural principles, are we being consistent with them, and how good of a job are we doing at putting them into practice?

Each of these conversations are key to driving a cultural shift. 

JEFF

Agreed. And that’s how we approach it with our clients. We ask leadership teams: What’s the culture that makes your declared-for business outcomes possible and probable? More specifically, what do you need your people to consistently know, feel, and do? We help them prioritize their top 10-12 answers to that question. Then measure where they have the biggest gaps between the “culture they have” and “the culture they need.” Then close those gaps by sending more consistent culture-shifting signals.

MIKE

Bringing rigor to organizational culture is not exceptionally difficult – internal consistency from the client and a solid but adjustable structure.  Your methodology clearly follows these lines.  But as we discussed above about where we find ourselves on the calendar, in 2020-2021 we find a lot of organizations which have failed to hold together part or all of this approach, costing them considerably in the eyes of their people.  

What should organizations be thinking about as we approach 2021?

JEFF

A couple of things come to mind. One is: Lots of organizations that found themselves in survival mode now have the opportunity to look around the corner and say “the good news is, we’re not dead.” And they can ask what it takes to turn their culture into a source of competitive advantage that helps them survive in the new normal, now that they are now leaner and meaner. We are working with a company in a travel-related industry that literally has had zero revenue for months but is taking this perspective. And I am bullish on their future. 

MIKE

This sounds like a trend shift from leader-led culture to workforce-led culture.  That makes sense as it may take management extending a firm hand to pull the surviving workforce into co-creating the emerging culture as opposed to trying to impose it on them again.

JEFF

That’s true. But that only works if leaders are brave enough to relinquish some control. That’s hard for a lot of leaders I know, who in the midst of crisis have only doubled down on their reactive “need for control.” 

MIKE

It may be a need to relinquish actual control, or it may be an acceptance that “control” actually lies in the hands of a broader group anyways. That may be a function of industry type, or it may be a function of personal honesty, a willingness to confront actual reality rather than the view of “the way things should be.” 

It may also be a recognition that decisions, statements or actions owned by leaders during the height of the pandemic are best corrected by offering greater sharing of ownership of decisions going forward.

JEFF

Agree with all of that…and there is a lot to unpack there.

On the second point, that’s where I am most proud to have contributed to some COVID silver linings for clients. We helped some leaders reshape their culture because they found themselves in a spot where they really could not control things the way they preferred. So we said: “let’s solve some of these problems by launching design sprints,” loosely based on agile project management and design thinking, that put decision-making in the hands of those closer to the customer, closer to the point of activity. In the old normal, I would never have been able to persuade the leadership to do this. But now they are converts and working very hard to build on and reinforce what they did only when they felt they had no choice.

MIKE

That’s a great case example on its own – the willingness and adaptability of senior leaders to embrace and adjust elements of a culture.  To me, this illustrates two larger trends.

The first is that culture is flexible, and that changes are catalytic. In this example, you see one change – say the introduction of  “design sprints”.  But that one change unleashes additional changes and changed perceptions.  The activities that go into the design sprints change. And the people who interact with the design sprints start to think of what other adjustments they would like to see in other ways they operate. Culture changes, in being catalytic, can indeed be liberating.

Then there is the old Peter Drucker quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Strategy is, by definition, rigid. If it’s not rigid, it’s not strategy.  Culture when it works is never fully rigid.  Its adaptability and responsiveness is what gives it the advantage over strategy.

JEFF

Totally agree. But that’s why it’s so important to make the complex simple; the invisible visible; the esoteric measurable; and the “precious” practical when it comes to culture. Otherwise, leaders who recognize the importance of culture relative to strategy will nonetheless struggle to do anything about it if they don’t have a way to operationalize their appreciation that culture can in fact “eat their strategy for breakfast.”

One big question I’ve been eager to ask you is where the internal comms function plays a role here…in shaping culture…particularly in the late- and post-pandemic environment? What are you seeing or predicting, Mike?

MIKE

I see it in a number of ways. 

On the proactive side, it is by leading the development of renewed corporate language, like the purpose-vision-mission-values language that organizations are beginning to rejuvenate as the pandemic gives way to the next phase. 

On a more reactive side, it’s monitoring and if necessary challenging the use of language that contradicts existing purpose-vision-mission-values language.  

It’s also in the standard IC content flow – particularly in identifying “heroes” who exemplify that language or who represent championship in the design or delivery of key organizational priorities.  Survey research and the tracking of alignment between words, thoughts and deeds are also crucial.

JEFF

That makes sense. When it comes to “tracking of alignment between words, thoughts and deeds,” the IC function has to be seen as truly strategic…and have real jurisdiction with senior leaders…to coach them on this. That’s my experience, anyway. Do you see that moving in the right direction? Did COVID do anything to help or hurt the decades-long elevation of IC as a truly strategic function? (Broad question, I know.)

MIKE

I think the first wave of COVID was a setback – even though it was seen by many in the IC world as “the best of times and the worst of times.”  In 2020, I didn’t find companies that were willing to spend money or energy looking at gaps between stated culture and actual culture, and many were in the process of making off-values decisions about personnel or control.   

But I am much more optimistic about 2021 and beyond.  

Organizations that want to go beyond survival are seeking competitive advantage – and having cultures and IC that are exceptional – or at least, “better than crap” – is now seen as a source of that advantage. 

There won’t likely be a lot of budget going around, but some traditional money-burner activities like lavish management conferences won’t be on the agenda for another year at least.  So, there is opportunity.  

How do you see the coming year?

JEFF

If 2020 has taught me one thing, it’s to be humble about my predictive abilities!

But…I am optimistic as well. I have had conversations with leaders who…for the first time in my history with them…are rethinking assumptions, and actively working on upgrading their leadership mindsets and behaviors. And when they do that, it creates opportunities for those of us in the kind of work we do to support them more effectively. The other thing is: Senior execs almost always find the budget for things that increase their confidence and reduce their anxiety. Looking around the corner, I am seeing even more opportunities to engage leaders around communication and culture in order to help them make decisions that help them sleep better at night.

MIKE

So, let me propose a toast:  to optimism, and to 2021.

JEFF

Cheers! And thanks for inviting me to join you for this. I am excited about “getting in on the ground floor” of this new format you’re pioneering. The time flew by.

MIKE

Thanks for an excellent conversation.  I hope it sparks some further discussion as the year draws to a close.

COMMENTS FROM IC BEYOND

TRUDY 

Great conversation Jeff and Mike I like your approach to culture ‘starting with the end in mind’ – it’s the best way to look at it and certainly helps us in IC to shape messaging and activity to support. 

It was interesting how these times are shaping the reactions of leaders and allowing them to adjust their thinking. I guess getting to a place where they should have been long ago – more flexible to truly look at culture rather than just activities that imply a certain culture. 

There is a need though for functions to crossover here for me, where IC should be more involved and be a connector as the HR and other areas claim the role of developing culture. This is especially important when looking at the gap between ‘the culture they have and the culture they need’ – it would allow us to measure more in IC and add value. 

ADAM

I too appreciate the approach of “starting with the end in mind”, although I think it’s important to acknowledge that the “end” we start with may not entirely coincide with the “end” we end with. Or maybe we acknowledge at the outset that there’s never truly an end. I also really like your discussion about control – the need for leaders to relinquish control and acknowledge where control really lies. I think fleshing that out further could be a podtext on its very own!

When I think about organizational culture, I can’t help but think about how inwardly focused much of the discussion still seems to be. To a large extent this may seem like a U.S.-centric question, but what role can and should organizational culture play in forging a renewal in civic culture?  In the U.S., many companies introduced paid time off on Election Day in order to allow employees time to vote. While the approach and messaging differed from company to company,  I don’t think it was unusual for companies to weave in language on their own values and purpose as they encouraged employees to make their voices heard and participate. It’s not a tremendous leap to think that companies might use a similar approach to promote and reinforce other forms of civic engagement.

As for the format – it’s great! I’d love to see more of these, although not to the point where traditional podcasts no longer have a future. I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t publish the transcript first and follow up with the audio! 

KEVIN

Nice format guys!

There’s so much to unpick here, but I’ll try to focus on the culture-strategy-communication trichotomy. 

Firstly, I’ve always slightly distrusted the ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ claim. It’s true, I have seen plenty of examples where strategy has failed because culture was a major barrier. However, I’ve also seen times when a new business strategy changed culture significantly. Strategy can eat culture for brunch in my experience. 

What is less well-understood is the way that communication can change culture. What we have seen during the pandemic is a new focus on internal crisis communication. Many organisations have ‘oven-ready’ crisis communication plans for external communication. Not very many of these plans include internal comms. Very few organisations (if any) actually had an internal crisis communication plan in March 2020. As a result, they were forced into fast, reactive, internal communication. The downside to this is that there were no established protocols for good practice in this scenario. And yet, the positive unintended consequences of what has happened might be that senior managers better appreciate the importance of emotional rather than rational communication as they rapidly understood the need to connect with employees on a human level during a pandemic. 

I’ve heard of regular videos and online events where senior managers talk much more from the heart than in the past. This is, of course, just anecdotal evidence. Robust academic data will be published in a Special Covid-19 Internal Communication Edition of the Journal of Communication Management that I’m joint guest editing with Dr. Rita Men, due for publication in Spring next year. Watch this space. If it is the case that there has been a bit of a shift towards more emotional internal communication, then that might eventually transfer into changes in culture whereby rigid controls start to flex with more care, understanding and kindness in the workplace. I sincerely hope so!

Ultimately, organisational culture is internal communication. Organisations are largely sums of what is communicated on a daily basis. Internal communication that pivots to listening as much as messaging, using more caring language, can drive positive cultural change that is beneficial for organisations and employees. 

BELINDA

Rather than commenting, I’d love to go back in time and join the conversation. Lacking a time machine, I guess I need to say first I was nodding enthusiastically while reading this. Perhaps my only ‘really?’ was at the very beginning when you suggest culture hasn’t been talked about much in recent months. That’s not been my experience. Maybe it’s a question of where, at what level, or for what reason it’s been talked about? My experience is that culture or cultural principles have been a go-to to help many organisations navigate these tempestuous times. That’s been the case at the leadership, people manager and team level. 

The conversation has been around, not changing the culture, but leaning into and sustaining the culture. Using the essence of the culture to nurture collaboration, well-being, connection and all the things that came under threat for many teams as they moved to working remotely. But not just for those now homeworkers. Also for looking after and supporting people still out there doing their jobs beyond the comfort and safety of their own home. 

For many organisations culture and cultural principles / values have proved a well of inspiration, guidance and ideas this year. 

RESPONSE FROM JEFF

These are all GREAT comments. I want to respond, trying to keep it as brief as I can.

Trudy, you said: “There is a need though for functions to crossover here…where IC should be more involved and be a connector as the HR and other areas claim the role of developing culture.” 

I’ll be candid. This reality is the source of so much heartache and disappointment for me. Why? A little preamble: Our methodology is to help leaders measure culture and then move the needle. How do you move the needle? By more deliberately managing meaning, with strong, steady signals across what we call the Five Frequencies

1/ leaders’ decisions and actions

2/ what’s rewarded and recognized

3/ what’s tolerated (or not)

4/ how leaders “show up” informally (Informal communications is the variable that explains a disproportionate share of the variance in whether employees feel trust and psychological safety)

5/ formal comms

So why the heartache? Because for years I saw it as my personal mission as an outside consultant to get the IC function jurisdiction to advise senior execs ON ALL FIVE FREQUENCIES…not just Frequency 5. I always said I would have to charge higher fees if I entered the organization through the HR function than through the Corp Comms function, since I consider Corp Comms my tribe. But my success wasn’t what I wanted it to be. The truth is, and to your point, Trudy, the portfolio of activities needed to shape culture for competitive advantage cuts across traditional support functions. To do it right requires more thoughtful integration than exists in most organizations today. But for me personally, to be successful, I have had to get WAY more comfortable entering organizations through HR. (Sorry…I’ve sold out.)

Adam, you said: “I think it’s important to acknowledge that the ‘end’ we start with may not entirely coincide with the ‘end’ we end with. Or maybe we acknowledge at the outset that there’s never truly an end.”

Yup! One thing I am happy about: As more and more large organizations are trying to figure out what it means to adopt “agile ways of working,” they are getting more comfortable with the idea of launching experiments and learning from them. So for them we’re able to frame what we’re doing as a “culture-shifting experiment” without them getting nervous about the idea that we’re operating “experimentally.” Explicitly or not, when we help them measurably define their desired-state culture, we’re establishing a hypothesis: “If you move the needle on your culture metric, business performance will improve.” Behind that, we also help them set up experiments based on theories about what it will take to move the needle. Sometimes it all works out just like we planned. Sometimes it doesn’t. In that case, you fail fast…or at least as fast as you can, take the learning, and recalibrate. So, yes, to your point: “The ‘end’ we start with may not entirely coincide with the ‘end’ we end with.” And, to your second point, there never really is an end. Unless you are immune from disruption, you never get to declare victory on shaping culture as a source of competitive advantage.

Adam, you also said: “Very few organisations (if any) actually had an internal crisis communication plan in March 2020. As a result, they were forced into fast, reactive, internal communication. The downside to this is that there were no established protocols for good practice in this scenario.”

This is true. I recommend that IC functions (with the leaders they support) agree on a general set of heuristics, rules of thumb, protocols, whatever, in a crisis…versus trying to anticipate black swan events and then creating a specific plan for each. (If you can accurately predict black swan events, you shouldn’t be working in IC!) My personal fave is to clearly establish with senior leaders that in the midst of crisis, they will be willing to communicate in five probability buckets (“as of this moment, here’s what we think is definitely going to happen, probably going to happen, is still uncertain, is probably not going to happen, and is definitely not going to happen”). And you update it over time. This allows you to compete against the rumour mill. Credit where it’s due: I pulled this idea straight out of Communicating Change by Larkin and Larkin over 25 years ago. 

I’ll shut up in a minute, but I’ve got one more, Adam. You said: “senior managers [now] better appreciate the importance of emotional rather than rational communication.” One of my favorite stories: Again, our methodology involves helping senior teams measurably define their desired-state culture by asking: “In the culture that makes targeted business outcomes possible and probable, what does everyone here know, feel, and do?” One time I was facilitating this discussion for the senior team at a nuclear power plant. (Regulators were all over them and told them they needed to fix their culture.) As they were debating possible know / feel / do items, one leader said, “C’mon, dude. We’re a nuclear power plant. We don’t give a shit about feelings. Can’t we just focus on know and do goals?” 

I said, “With all due respect, that may be the source of the problem here.” And sure enough, when we finally got some culture data there and did some statistical modeling, we found that what their employees FEEL has way more influence than what they KNOW on what they DO. In fact, the strongest predictor of employee behavior in the union ranks was whether they felt that “this plant is a place where we care about each other.”

Belinda, I agree with everything you said I’m trying to get smarter about this, in particular: “Using the essence of the culture to nurture collaboration, well-being, connection and all the things that came under threat for many teams as they moved to working remotely.” There’s still a lot to learn!

MIKE

I guess with the dispersion of the workforce, it’s been less easy to be connected with all of the conversations about the workplace that are currently taking place. It’s reassuring that there have been folks talking about culture when others have focused on the current crisis and implications for structure, workforces and delivery. Of course they all support, challenge and interact.  

Still, 2021 is the main event. Let’s keep following this, see where it develops – and mount a challenge if there is a rush to go back to bad habits.