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Launching a new initiative? Look to your culture first
Be honest. How many initiatives have you started, only to see them fizzle out in inertia? More importantly, how many times have you set out to transform working patterns with a completely new ethos, only to see it lurch sideways into ignominious failure? And the reason? Well we’ll come to that in a moment.
We don’t need to tell you that one of the key responsibilities of leadership is to set vision and values, strategies and behaviours for the organisation. But simply setting them isn’t enough. One of the key attributes of great leadership is to ensure that the way in which those visions are communicated translates them into understanding and engagement.
It isn’t always easy. The larger the organisation the more layers there are, all putting their own spin on the initiative and all trying to adopt/ignore the new working patterns in their own way. Departmental and team leaders may be too overworked to even contemplate change, or they may be looking to take the initiative forward in a way which benefits their own career path. Front line employees may well be too set in their ways to change attitude or they may be inured to change having lived through past failures. Meanwhile, the leadership, convinced that they have launched a new ethos happily move on to the next idea without a backward glance.
Too cynical? Perhaps but unless the underlying organisational culture is strong then one or more of these scenarios are all too likely. Let’s say that you’ve reviewed your organisational practices and realised that your attention to customer service is somewhat lacking. This is resulting in a customer drift away to rival organisations and your reputation is not as strong as it used to be. So you decide to refocus on customer outcomes and launch an initiative which will encourage employees to take ownership of customer queries and attempt to provide a solution. This you hope will stop queries being passed from pillar to post and will result in more happy customers and a resultant rise in reputation and customer loyalty.
The initiative filters down through the various layers of the business until it reaches the front line staff who will mainly be responsible for its implementation. Along the way, it may have passed through divisional leaders who have decided that to measure success they need to add targets, through training who have decided that the best way to teach people to take ownership is to teach them always to look for positive outcomes no matter what, through HR who have decided to incorporate success into annual reviews with measurement being via observed interviews and through team leaders who are so fed up with change initiatives that they accept whatever they are given without considering the consequences.
By the time the initiative has reached front line employees it has changed from ‘take ownership and try to provide a solution’ to a target-driven, time consuming, observed paper chase in which admitting that ‘we can’t do that’ or ‘I’ll need to investigate further’ is akin to asking for a disciplinary black mark. The result is further disengagement of front line employees and a worsening of customer relations as what should have been a quick chat is turned into a long and unproductive meeting in which the employee desperately tries not to be negative whilst all the time knowing that a solution is not immediately to hand.
What started out as proactive customer service ended up in disaster. And the reason? Simply that the original intention wasn’t communicated in a way in which it could be translated into positive outcomes. To enable front line staff to take ownership, back office processes may have to be changed to open up access, those who never see a customer may need to be coached so that they can drop everything in a collaborative effort to find a solution, employees may need to be freed and empowered to be honest and open. But none of that will happen unless the leadership actively scope out a change of culture which will underpin the new behaviours. So how many initiatives have you launched into failure? Perhaps it is time if you went back to basics and looked closely at the underlying culture of your organisation.