How to Spark Sustainable Change Through Disruption and Crises

The Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional & Executive Development is proud to partner with Human Synergistics International to provide assessments and data into your leadership style, organizational culture, agility, and readiness for change. The following article by Tim Kuppler was published on the Human Synergistics’ Constructive Culture blog on April 28, 2020.

What is your organization’s new normal during the COVID-19 crisis? Are you feeling proud about the work of your leadership? Are you doing things you never dreamed possible or are you struggling with team members who are lost and confused? What story will you tell when the COVID-19 pandemic is in the past and will you make the most of the experience now?

History will show this period may be one of the greatest learning opportunities that organizations will ever have. The stakes are high; the decisions that CEOs make will determine the trajectory of their organization, not only for the next few months, but for the next few years. Deeply entrenched cultural norms are being temporarily set aside, or even disrupted—and the collective untapped potential in many organizations is being unleashed. As the crisis subsides, will your leaders drift back to the habits, systems, and expectations of the past or will they continue with a learning mindset to support sustainable change?

COVID-19 is Unique

There is a pattern that’s far different from the financial crisis, 9/11, or other global disruptions. COVID-19 is revealing a more humane approach to dealing with crisis within many organizations. Individuals have united to support each other, their customers, and their community in ways they never thought would be possible. This is exemplified by numerous stories about, not only front-line responders and care givers, but also those in manufacturing, distribution, and other organizations. This includes Braskem America, where the Washington Post recently reported on the 43 workers at their Pennsylvania plant who decided to temporarily live at the factory, keep two 12-hour shifts operating continuously for a month, and produce millions of pounds of the raw materials required to manufacture face masks and surgical gowns. Now is the time for leaders and teams to reflect and understand why they are responding either effectively or ineffectively as an organization. By understanding a few essential culture principals and applying a change framework, recent improvements can be sustained over time.

Crisis and Culture

The following fundamental truths that we know about culture emerge in unique ways during a crisis.

1. Culture is built and evolves through shared learning and reflection

Organizations can change dramatically when responding to crises. In a 2016 article on this topic in the Harvard Business Review, Jay Lorsch and Emily McTague describe how culture can change as leaders put into place new processes and structures to deal with challenges. However, improvements in working patterns can be the result of other factors such as employees seeing “their contributions to society in a whole new light.” When this is the case, the more positive climate may be temporary and things will revert back to the legacy culture unless leaders take action.

Henry Mintzberg introduced the field of management to the need for reflection, particularly when the pressures are to instead just “go-go-go.” Similarly, Edgar Schein has noted, “reflection is the key to learning and reflection is what we often rule out because we are too busy.”

We’re typically caught in the whirlwind of work and it’s spinning at a dizzying pace during this crisis. The main question to be answered is whether we will be able to find a way to plan disciplined reflection, capture shared learnings, and refine COVID-19 recovery plans.

“Change is the end result of all true learning.”

Leo Buscaglia

2. Team members “act on what they know” in a Constructive culture

I heard this insight from a mentor many years ago. “Acting on what we know” captures the experience of living up to our potential as we collaborate effectively with others. Doing so is encouraged and supported by Constructive cultures. Unfortunately, in the world of work, we may not always act on what we know. What we truly believe may not be exhibited in our behavior as culture and Defensive norms tend to hijack our minds. We hesitate due to fear or uncertainty and self-doubt grows. We listen to this voice of self-doubt in our heads and stop. We don’t speak up, we stay quiet, and our ideas never emerge.

So, what’s different in a crisis? With COVID-19 there’s a lot that’s different. The business disruption that has taken place is intertwined with a global health crisis, and many leaders are showing genuine empathy and care for their employees, other businesses, and their customers. The cultural divide that often exists between top leaders and the rest of their organization is blurring. We are seeing examples of behavior being driven by fundamental human values that connect us all.

There’s also a greater focus on shared purpose and goals instead of individual problems. We are seeing leaders stepping up for their employees and business. It’s key to understand why team members may be reacting more constructively and what unshakable beliefs have suddenly been shaken.

“Our society needs to re-establish a culture of caring.”

Nelson Mandela

3. Results and consequences are the reinforcement loops needed for any new cultural attribute (e.g., belief, norm) to take hold

Feedback loops are crucial when dealing with culture change because in a crisis, there is a rapid connection between decisions and results. It’s important to reflect and capture shared learnings as an input to disciplined action to make the most of these rapid feedback cycles.

“Change starts with a choice to put meaningful
learning to action.”

Kevin Kruse

Three Steps for Culture Change

What leaders need is a targeted approach that offers immediate benefits to translate meaningful learning to action, thus setting the stage for sustainable change.

Step One – Evaluate the current state

Start by engaging a team to provide unstructured feedback about what’s working, what’s not, and why. It’s important to allow the group to take the conversation where they want it to go to explore the current state but ask about the patterns of behavior that are emerging in the crisis.

Using Human Synergistics “How Culture Works” model, you can bring some structure to the conversation to let the group connect the patterns of behavior to the systems, structures, and leadership approaches that are encouraging or reinforcing them.

Step Two – Survey to capture patterns of behavior

Use a brief survey to quickly engage organizational members on a larger scale, confirm some of the information gathered, and surface new insights. The survey will also help bring a common language and measurement to the process.

Human Synergistics created the Culture Mirror™ to assist in this step. It is not a measure of culture (I.e., norms or beliefs) but rather captures and provides a snapshot of the patterns of behavior prevailing within an organization at this point in time. Robert A. Cooke developed the Culture Mirror by selecting items (behaviors) from his Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®), that have demonstrated a particularly strong positive or negative relationship to organizational adaptability and innovation. For organizations that have previously used the OCI, results on the Culture Mirror will show whether the current patterns of interaction within the organization reflect (or do not reflect) their pre-pandemic culture. For organizations that have not, the Culture Mirror results provide feedback on the current interpersonal climate and a baseline for evaluating the results of a future administration of the survey. Either way, the Mirror quantifies and provides a language for understanding the current state of the organization, identifying the dimensions that are attractive and effective, and discussing steps to be taken to sustain those features and bake them into the culture.

Step Three – Refine recovery plans and deliver outcomes

The best decisions are built on having the most useful information. Steps one and two will provide the clarity necessary to refine your COVID-19 recovery plans as a step toward embedding positive culture change. They help transform the abstract into something leaders can understand and translate to three meaningful outcomes.

Capture shared learnings (write them down!)

Team members should be engaged in a facilitated process that summarizes the lessons gained from the exploration and survey results. What were the initial key learnings from the exploration in step one? What did the survey results illuminate regarding the effective and ineffective behaviors emerging during the crisis and their impact on the outcomes? Confirm the shared learnings resonate across various levels and teams.

Plan for recovery

Discuss the shared learnings and brainstorm next steps to refine COVID-19 recovery plans and other short-term initiatives. Clearly prioritize, document, and communicate the lessons learned and related refinements across your team so everyone learns from the process.

Embed positive change

It’s imperative to do what’s necessary to perpetuate patterns of emerging Constructive behaviors so you don’t revert back. Cooke notes, “Leaders optimally should discuss, learn, and plan what to do to retain new behaviors or bring them out going forward.”

Sustainable change will depend on understanding the pre-crisis patterns of behavior and underlying beliefs along with what was reinforcing or encouraging them. Review each key learning and reflect on why it took a crisis to bring it out or to translate it to action. Capture some of the most significant systems, structures, job characteristics, and leadership approaches that were promoting the pre-crisis patterns of behavior. Identify initiatives that are necessary and feasible in the short-term to begin to embed positive change and those that will need to wait until the crisis begins to subside.

The above process can be implemented in two weeks or less but a thorough culture assessment and performance improvement effort will be beneficial at a later date. The longer-term improvements may be addressed at that time.

“Culture change happens at the intersection of curiosity and courage.”

Tim Kuppler

Why Implement a Plan for Culture Change During COVID-19

Jim Rohn said, “Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by choice.” Choose to go through these steps because it will make your organization better. The stakes are high and it’s important to have the courage to proceed. Don’t go back to the “normal” of the past as you crave certainty; find and sustain your new normal through intentional action.

To assist you with next steps, be sure to see the Culture Mirror landing page for a two-minute video, targeted process and customizable templates you may use to reflect, learn, and refine improvement plans.

Your organization has faced changes and it’s time to ensure that your culture reflects those changes to support your team. To help you implement a plan to create a sustainable culture, we invite you to set up a Discovery Session with our Solutions Advisor Team.

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About the Author

Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and director of culture and organization development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He leads collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society.