Leading Culture Shift
“The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.” - John Green
In 2017 the BC Ombudsperson, the chief arbiter of fairness for the Province of BC, published a report on the BC Ministry of Health that can only be described as damning.
Misfire: The 2012 Ministry of Health Employment Terminations and Related Matters
contains over 600 pages of information related to one of the darkest periods of history in the biggest, most important to the lives of most residents, BC ministries. Compelled to respond to, and ultimately address, the issues identified in the report, the Ministry of Health might have chosen to do so using an approach that is all too typical for some large organizations (who don’t really care what an outside 3rd party thinks): strike a committee, cobble together a plan, tick off some quick wins, and then ‘declare victory’ and head back to work. Given that the scale and scope of many of the issues identified in the report called for leading a wholesale culture shift, probably the most difficult kind of change to lead in any organization, a ‘skate over the pond’ approach might have been expected, but clearly could not work in the long term.
Impressively, this ministry’s leaders decided on a different, thoughtful, and quite frankly, brave and inspiring approach: they first gave everyone in the ministry a chance to help identify all the issues, as well as suggest actions to address them as part of an organizational reconciliation program
. Only after this experience would they develop their long term culture shift approach, informed by the input from hundreds of staff. During this critically important Listen and Learn phase, Berlineaton was fortunate to be part of the ministry led team that helped facilitate the engagement of hundreds of staff during dozens of problem identification, and solution making, sessions delivered in Victoria and Vancouver between the Summer of 2017 and the Spring of 2018. Unsurprisingly, this is a monumental, multi-year undertaking and, in May 2018, the results were published in a progress report: Culture Change - Organizational Reconciliation Program - Actions to Build a Healthy Organizational Culture.
Although it’s still early days with regard to realizing their end goals, here are 3 things we’ve learned so far about leading culture shift:
1. It is just about the toughest subject, ever
When you’re inviting people to share information about problems with culture it is always a very subjective experience, and can be very emotional. Cultural malfunction can relate to whole host of issues but generally centre on how people are treated: poorly, in most cases where there are problems. As a result, many people are understandably reluctant to share personal information, or to identify specific issues, even in a confidential setting. We were able to draw out an enourmous amount of information in group settings using a combination techniques honouring the readiness of participants to contribute feedback using post-it notes and written survey type information. Even then, this was clearly a stressful experience for some people, so it’s important to always bear that in mind when engaging around the subject of culture shift.
2. Leaders need to not have all the answers
Normally, businesses expect leaders to have all the answers. This makes sense. The people in charge should know what’s going on, so we train, groom, and expect, our leaders to know things. When there are problems at the cultural level, however, there is no way that leaders can have all the answers. This is hard for most leaders to accept but, in a culture shift focused project, when leaders try to show that they have all the answers, they can shut people down. It’s easy to jump into a troubled situation assuming that you can fix it. By yourself. This works well for simple problems like flat tires. However, it takes a community to fix a culture, and it’s important to work across the business to mobilize and lead that effort on behalf of the community. The best approach is to deploy powerful, open ended questions, beginning with words like ‘What’, ‘How’, ‘Why’, ‘Who’ and ‘When’, then provide the space and time required to draw out answers from the people in the organization, who each hold a part of the puzzle. When done well, in addition to important information to guide the improvement effort, the end product will include engagement from, and ownership by, hundreds of people. Which is the whole point, of course.
3. Do it yourself
Given the subject (sensitive) and the scope (vast) some organizations may be tempted to pass off the Listen and Learn stage to an external third party of some kind. This makes sense for reasons such as maintaining confidentiality, or providing the capacity required to support such an intensive effort. The Ministry of Health chose a different, better approach blending the services of consultants, Berlineaton and others, with the leadership and project management support of internal staff. This approach ensured success for two key reasons:
Trust:Various options for ensuring confidentiality and objectivity were always available and created a sense of safety. Much of the facilitation and interview work was conducted by experienced consultants within a context established by the ministry’s culture change team. This helped draw out information that some may not have shared out of a fear of censure. Having access to internal ministry staff, who were also operating within a climate of confidentiality, provided an outlet for those not comfortable sharing sensitive information with consultants. Overall, giving people a choice was key.
Fit:Project outputs were more relevant and aligned with the organizational culture. Operating within the context of a ministry team led effort provided opportunities to continually align approaches and products to the organizational culture making them more relevant and understandable. There’s nothing like hearing the results from a complex information gathering process from their own people, in their own language, to help an organization understand the challenges and opportunities best.
The ministry has acted on most of the report’s recommendations
, and are now moving to action, engaging broadly and deeply to get traction on the many important streams of work that must be pursued to realize long term success. As described by the Deputy Minister, Stephen Brown “Culture Change does not happen overnight — it is a long and sometimes difficult journey. The Culture Change Strategy highlights the founda¬tional role that leadership plays in driving and shaping culture, and it shows the importance of integrating the Ministry’s business objectives, talent management and culture strategies to cultivate an organizational culture that provides: Meaningful Work, Empowered People, Healthy Workplace.