I love entrepreneur Steve Blank’s phrase “hacking the corporate culture.” While he focuses on how to increase agility and adaptability to increase innovation, I think the phrase applies more broadly. Over the past two weeks, I was at two workshops (one in Europe, the other in China) at the division level of huge multinational corporations. In both, the question discussed was: “How do we create change in a large organization were we are not at the top and don’t completely control our destiny?” Or, as Blank might ask, “How do we hack the corporate culture?”
In these blogs, this matters because most workshops in large corporations end with some rallying cry to restore the Founder’s Mentality. This might mean rediscovering the core insurgent mission of the company. Or we might argue that the voices of the customers and front line have been lost in a sea of competing voices—most often central voices shouting from their side of the matrix. Or this might be because the whole idea of “think and act like an owner” has been ground down by complexity. Perhaps it is all of the above!
But tackling these issues can seem impossible if you’re just one small part of a larger organization. Here’s a paraphrase of one of the dozens of company-specific examples that fill my notebook: “We are dying in complexity, with too little focus on what really matters. Our customers are just one item on a long list of things that demand our attention. Our people are uninspired and tired and have lost sight of why this company even exists. But I have no idea what I can do about it. We operate in one division (or one market) of a vast empire of divisions and markets, and a lot of our problems stem from those above us telling us what to do. As just one piece of this puzzle, how can we bring more focus, change the culture, and make things better for our customers and people?”
It ain’t easy. But we’ve had enough discussion on this topic to offer up an initial list of seven actions to kick-start the revolution. These actions assume that the divisional leadership team is right: They need to start the revolution alone, and are not likely to get a lot of support from the corporate center (let’s call that “HQ”).
(There’s another possible scenario: The divisional leaders are wrong—HQ is, in fact, desperate for massive culture change and would be happy to get their call. But that happy scenario is not the situation our seven actions are designed to address.)
- Start with a single beating heart. The first action is to get your people to act like insurgents. We continue to hear stories of folks who have heard about Founder’s Mentality and put a sign above their door saying “Insurgents only enter here!” The idea is to start with the individual and ask, “Even if no one else changes, what can you do tomorrow to restore Founder’s Mentality in this company?” And, it turns out, there is a long list of stuff people can just get on with. One manager in a huge US company created a list of behaviors he would change. Paraphrasing, the list was roughly:
- I’m going to spend less time at my desk and more time with my customers and the frontline folks who serve them.
- I will work to deconstruct problems, making them smaller so my team can take actions.
- I will always consider the cost of additional complexity in every decision I make and ask the question, “Is the customer going to be willing to pay for this additional cost I’m about to add?”
- I’m going to act fast, recognizing that speed is a huge competitive weapon.
- I’m going to trust more and worry more about outcomes than process, and more about results than KPIs.
- I’m going to ask for forgiveness, not permission.
- I’m going to turn my people into insurgents—helping them not simply with the what of their job, but investing in helping them with the how, and most importantly, the why.
- I’m going to embrace conflict, understanding that my customers benefit when we identify trade-offs and resolve conflicts quickly. I won’t let disagreements fester and sap the organization of energy.
- I’m going to give my teams and customers energy every day and help one energy vampire leave the company with dignity, but quickly.
- I will declare war on one item of bureaucracy a month.
- I will celebrate the heroes around me who create and follow a similar list.
The point is, the soul of an organization is ultimately the sum of a thousand individual heartbeats. And profound cultural change can start with a single beating heart. Don’t let anyone start the revolution wasting energy on what others should do—start by asking what he or she will do tomorrow.
- Clean your own room first. The second action focuses on the things you can collectively control as a team. And the list is a long one. We just finished a major piece of work on Founder’s Mentality for a multinational where the local team initially asked: “What are the major changes that the regional and global teams need to make to help the country management team do their job better?” The local team posed this question because they felt the major obstacles to doing their job were the people above them. By the end of the work, there were roughly 40 initiatives—yet 90% were actions the local market could take to control their local destiny. Yes, you are in a big messy house, with lots of things that are out of your control, but your own room is pretty big and probably not as tidy as it should be. Why don’t you at least start cleaning your own room before you complain about the state of the rest of the house?
- Trade results for sponsors from HQ. The third action starts with a simple concept: presume trust. Let’s assume that as you begin to get results from changes in individual behaviors and from cleaning up your own room folks at HQ are going to notice and congratulate you. So, start using results as your sponsorship currency. The conversations with bosses at HQ will go something like this: “Thanks, Mary. Appreciate the feedback on Q2; early days, but we are getting momentum. You know a lot of this is the result of our war on complexity. I’d like to expand that war now, and take on some of the complexity killing us from HQ. Can I ask for your support in advance to run some air cover for us? To do this right, we’ll going to need to upset some folks and I’d like it if you at least call me before assuming we’re the bad guys.” There are two more actions listed below on getting HQ onboard, but whatever else you do, don’t let praise go unused!
- Negotiate a role as a maverick pilot with the powers that be (starting with the CEO troika). The fourth action is to be even more explicit with the need for HQ support. But please note, this is the fourth action on this list, not the first. CEOs want to know that you’re doing all you can by yourself before coming to help! Again, this action starts with presuming trust. Let’s assume that your CEO is committed to winning: If you are finding ways to win, he or she will want to know about it and support you. (If this isn’t the case, you have a much bigger problem than starting a revolution.) Here’s the conversation: “Alice, I know you are aware of actions we are taking to restore a sense of insurgency in our markets and to tackle complexity. And it’s working. We have been focusing on the things under our control, but now we need to shake things up more broadly. Rather than having people challenging whether our actions are right for the rest of the organization, which will slow us down enormously, I would ask one thing from you: Call us a ‘pilot.’ Let everyone know you are letting a big experiment run but aren’t sure whether that experiment will be applied everywhere. That will keep folks off my back and avoid a decade of big ideological debates. Let us run for another 6–12 months as a pilot, and then I’m happy to provide some observations on what we might do globally.” The point of doing this is to give yourself time and space to solve your specific issues now, before opening yourself up to a grand ideological battle for the hearts and minds of the global enterprise.
- Against the single question, “Will this help the insurgency?,” triage HQ initiatives into three buckets. Independent of your ability to gain HQ sponsorship, you face another wee problem: HQ is still doing tons of stuff that impact you, some of which is great and some is exactly the opposite of what is needed. That is simple reality. We have found that the only way to deal with this is triage. It starts with a lot of homework: You are going to need to be very clear on your insurgency and the repeatable model that supports it. Not a little clear, but very clear, because you are then going to stare hard at the avalanche of HQ initiatives, and ask of each, Does this initiative help or hinder our efforts to return to core insurgency and restore Founder’s Mentality? You’ll end up with three lists:
- Stuff you’ve got to accelerate now. Some initiatives coming from HQ will be absolutely critical to what you want to do. Champion those initiatives and offer to pilot and test them in your market. Praise the heroics of the HQ folks who are working on them. Look hard and you will find a few noble initiatives you can champion. Really.
- Stuff you’ve got to stop now. Less surprising, you will also identify initiatives that will kill your turnaround and stop it dead in its tracks. This needs to be a very short list of really evil things, so if the list contains more than four items, stop yourself. You’re whining too much. Focus on the really dangerous ones and figure out how to keep them from hitting your division. Maybe you can get yourself on Wave C of the rollout roadmap. Maybe you can cry a lack of resources. Figure it out—you can play the bureaucracy as well as anyone—but keep them away from your division.
- Stuff you can shape with time and resources. There will be a much longer list of initiatives in the middle. They won’t advance your cause, nor will they deliver a death blow. Decide with your team how to play each one: Do we use a lot of time and resources to help shape them into winning initiatives, or do we use a lot of time and resources to keep them from happening? Do this in the context of all the other stuff you have to get done. There’s no easy rule of thumb, but life is short, so pick your battles wisely if you intend to oppose an initiative. And don’t try to make all the others perfect—sometimes accepting corporate will and just playing along is a wise long game.
- Create and celebrate heroes at HQ and recruit them to the insurgency. Once you have a list of initiatives from HQ that you support, become a generous champion of the HQ cause. Welcome the HQ leaders of those initiatives to your market and your division. Help them get great results with your team and sing their praises. They will go back to their HQ peers covered in your glory and medals and maybe influence the behaviors of their colleagues.
- Promote civil disobedience (within reason). For goodness sake, you also need to have some fun! Choose your moments wisely, but promote civil disobedience. Pick a bureaucrat of the month for the whole organization to ignore. No responses to any emails. If you must respond to stupid info requests, make it painful. Reschedule conference calls on stupid initiatives so often that they eventually move you from Wave A to Wave E. But only do this after the results are starting and you have some evidence that you are creating sponsors. Civil disobedience involves a lot of eventual suffering—make sure it’s worth it.
That’s the list of actions you can take to begin a revolution in your own company. It requires the wide-eyed idealism of someone listening to the drum of a thousand beating hearts. It requires cold-blooded cynicism to decide which fights to provoke with which evil bureaucrat. And it involves righteous battles worth fighting and dispiriting tactical retreats. But isn’t that the history of any successful revolution?