The Secret to a High-Performance Culture

I can’t believe it’s been 15 years since I read Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great.” I remember being very impressed by the book at the time, both the concepts and the depth of the research that went into it. A lot of the ideas resonated with me, and it was satisfying to know there was correlational research to support them. A few years later, you may remember, a similar methodology was applied in the association community in a report, titled Seven Measures of Success. So there we were, poised with some impressive tools to help the association community leap into greatness.

But since one of Collins’ key recommendations is to “confront the brutal facts,” then we need to come clean here: not many associations appear to have made that leap over the last decade. I am sure there are a few that have ramped up to measurably “great” performance, but if it were a significant trend, we would have noticed by now. This is frustrating. We were promised some research-based insights that were going to lead our organizations to greatness, yet when we tried to implement that, we generally ended up with organizations that continued to plod along the same trajectory they were on before. We made some improvements, for sure, but we failed to create truly high-performance cultures.

Here’s why.

The body of research behind books like Good to Great and Measures of Success is certainly well intended, and I do believe it can generate some insights that could genuinely help you improve your association, but it misses one of the most important truths I’ve discovered about workplace culture in my two decades of consulting with organizations: all great cultures start on the inside – not with the external ideas. The external ideas do matter, and studying great organizations can teach us a lot, but the work of culture is always going to be about building and growing, not copying.

And that means you can’t make your culture better until you know what it is. You can’t create a Jim-Collins-approved culture that excels at confronting the brutal facts, for example, until you know how your people already experience your culture when it comes to things like speaking the truth, sharing information across department lines, articulating strategic imperatives, and even letting people be their whole selves at work. These cultural themes may seem disconnected from your quest to move from good to great, but simply declaring to your people that you want your new culture to be brutally honest – when they are already uncomfortable sharing even a little bit of their personal identity in the workplace, or they already notice that people refuse to say anything controversial when a leader is in the room – is going to be a huge disconnect.

Your people already know what your culture is. They experience it every day. And when you set out to create a new awesome culture that is fundamentally disconnected from their experience, then the change will not make sense to them, and you will see resistance. I am told frequently that it is natural for people to resist change, but I don’t believe that’s entirely true. People don’t resist change – they resist change that doesn’t make sense to them.

Therefore, if you want to make the leap from good to great and create a high-performance culture, you won’t get very far unless you design that effort with your current culture as the starting point. Here’s what that looks like.

I worked recently with an association that has just under 60 staff, an engaged membership, and a successful history of both leading and serving the profession. But they did have a problem: they had become a little slow. For some time, their members had been giving the association direct feedback that they were not keeping the members ahead of the curve, like they used to. They were generating important products that advanced their profession, but they were bringing them to market just a little too late.

To solve that problem, they started by digging into their current culture. They didn’t stay at the high level and write up their core values or their “hedgehog” concept. Instead, we worked together to map out 64 distinct culture building blocks within eight culture markers – measuring things like agility, growth, inclusion, transparency and innovation. This wasn’t about evaluating their culture as good or bad (which is what most culture assessments do, benchmark you against some abstract model) – instead, this work focused on accurately describing their current state. It placed each culture building block on a continuum, ranging from traditionalist, to contemporary, to futurist. In other words, how close are they to traditional management practices, versus the “future of work” leadership and management practices that cutting-edge companies are inventing today. And again where they sat along this continuum was not a value judgement – there are “traditional” elements of EVERY association’s culture that are extremely important to preserve and protect.

When they saw the scan of their workplace culture, they noticed something interesting in the data. Several of the building blocks related to transparency were outliers, scoring closer to the traditional end of the spectrum compared to the rest of their culture. In other words, their people felt like the quantity of information being shared internally was limited, particularly when it had to cross silo lines (in traditionalist cultures, information is guarded, and silos focus internally first). But if you’re thinking to yourself that the solution for this group is obviously to become more futurist and start sharing more information in order to get faster, then you’re falling into that same, benchmark-based, good-to-great trap that we’ve all been falling into for the last twenty years. And they knew that they actually did a great job sharing information – that was a cultural value for them that had historical significance. So what was this data telling them?

I’m actually a big fan of transparency, and I agree that organizations, in general, will often benefit from increasing the flow of information. But this association isn’t an organization in general. They have a unique culture and are faced with relatively unique challenges in their context, so what they needed was a insight and understanding that was customized to their situation. So they dug a little further, and here’s what they discovered.

The culture scan had also uncovered an internal pattern around decision-making that connected to their transparency scores. In their historical desire to not withhold information from each other, they had developed a pattern of including many different people and groups in the organization in just about every decision that was made. And with more people included in the decision-making process, it is inevitable that some of them felt like they didn’t have enough information (hence the traditional-leaning scores). But the problem wasn’t a lack of information – the problem was in their ability to move quickly on decisions with so many cooks in the kitchen, each of whom was asking for more and more information about issues that were probably not central to their work in the first place. As they uncovered these insights, they developed a clear new priority for their culture:

Everyone has a voice, but not everyone decides.

They started to map out decisions using the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed), in order to clarify decision-making roles internally. For some people, that meant they were getting LESS information. If they were only being “consulted” on the decision, they would probably hear about it more toward the end of the process. Those in the “informed” role wouldn’t hear about it until after the decision had been made. In this case, the association was able to unlock speed NOT by putting more information into everyone’s hands, but by putting less out there but in the right hands. And streamlining the decision-making process so everyone had clarity about why they were being included or not included.

They are now well on their way to a faster, high-performance culture, but they are doing it on their own terms, and incorporating the historical/traditional values that still matter to them. They are getting strong buy-in internally because the cultural shift (a) ties directly to how their people already experience their culture, and (b) helps them meet member needs better. This story is just one aspect of their current culture shift, of course, and they have more work to do before we could call this a good-to-great leap. But by tying their efforts to a more nuanced understanding of their existing culture, and in some cases even moving in the opposite direction from what the management experts cite as “best practices,” they are moving towards a high-performance culture customized to what drives their success – not anyone else’s.

Author Jamie Notter is author of “Humanize” and “When Millennials Take Over,” and a founding partner at WorkXO, a culture startup that helps forward thinking leaders in growth oriented organizations activate their workplace culture to attract the right talent, increase engagement, and unleash human potential through the Workplace Genome™ Project. Find him at www.workxo.com.
Photo credit: A Lot of People/Shutterstock.com

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