Corporate Transformation Starts Here

American School of Bombay
American School of Bombay

Business, organization and culture change are hot topics in the corporate world today. However, they often remain conceptual thinking: implementation is seen as difficult. We know companies have to connect with their internal and external stakeholders, we understand a collaborative culture is now key to success, we may even realize that social technologies are not sufficient to ignite collaboration. So, where to start?

Well, the trigger can be as simple as a meeting. A different type of meeting. Here’s an example.

Systemic issues require systemic change

Some corporate leaders understand it: traditional ways of working have to evolve, companies must reinvent themselves. Not for the beauty of transformation per se, but because old ways don’t work anymore. The need for change may come from a reduction of what makes a company strong: market share, profitability, attractiveness to talents, industry leadership – the accelerating pace of disruption shows in the shrinking lifespan of large corporations or in the topple rate evolution. It may also (and simultaneously) come from an increase of what makes companies weak: production issues, customer complaints, employee disengagement, operational rigidity, write offs, quality concerns.

When this happens, unfortunately too many leaders put the blame on external factors: market conditions, competitors’ move…; on anecdotal concerns: inadequate processes, sub-optimal governance…; or worse, on bad will of staff. They change people, update operating procedures, replace the equipment, shift market focus, or hire a strategy consultant. And the problems are still there. Why? Because this is a systemic issue, which requires a systemic transformation.

We’re living in an age of individual empowerment, combined with 3 technological disruptions at the same time (cloud, social, mobile) as David Terrar explained recently in an interview with Thierry de Baillon for The Future of [Collaborative] Enterprise (check it out – it’s an awesome project). In this context, what’s needed is an organizational and cultural transformation of companies. Not just another change management initiative: you don’t cure a seriously sick patient with a Band-Aid.

Mobilize internal stakeholders through collaboration, enable corporate transformation

I was lucky to meet recently someone who gets it. Inspired by the writings of John Kotter, Chip & Dan Health and others, Anders wants no less but to change mindsets in a large, global corporation. He was recruited just a couple of months ago to direct Quality in a leading pharmaceutical company, reporting to its CEO. This function has gone through deep issues in a recent past, which should never happen again: Quality is a vital stake in healthcare. Really. Regulation authorities can have a company close down its operations if quality doesn’t match the required standards. Anders and I met after a speech I made about collaboration for stakeholder engagement. He thought this was the right approach to support his transformation project.

This move was really the first evidence of a new thinking: Anders’ organization and mine are not related, have never worked together. I had never seen a function leader pick the brain of a less senior co-worker, of another functional silo, in an informal mode: no project team, no hierarchical validation, no entry into annual objectives or other corporate rituals. “Wirearchy in action”, as Jon Husband would say. What was sought after here was the diversity of thoughts. Plus, an expertise with engagement through social collaboration that no other function (Comms, HR…) can provide today.

A new style of meeting to spark engagement and collaboration

A 2-day meeting was planned by Anders with his new leadership team, three weeks later. I gladly accepted to help design and facilitate the meeting. This was the opportunity to bring people together around a crucial topic (Quality), to lay the foundations of a new thinking around culture change, and to showcase social collaboration tools and mindset.

Here are the main features of this meeting, which can easily be applied to any topic and any company. Combined with a modern leadership practice, this set of actionable items is a stepping stone towards an efficient, collaborative corporate culture.

  1. Seek external inspiration. Asking Change Agents Worldwide fellows was my first reaction when I was consulted on this initiative. We are a community of practice, gathering enterprise and solo change agents. We collaborate and exchange ideas via a Socialcast platform. “Can social collaboration improve Quality?”: in just a few hours, I was able to collect insightful answers and suggestions that provided precious inspiration.
  2. Crowd source the agenda. If you want participants to be engaged in a meeting, you have to engage them from the very beginning, i.e. from the meeting design phase. Ask them what they would like to address, and actively build upon it. This gives ownership of the meeting to the participants. For large meetings, if you can’t afford to ask everyone, you can at least “crowd test” the agenda.
  3. Seek unbiased input. Avoiding complacency and political correctness is important to make a meeting really productive. Ideas must flow freely, which can be difficult in some corporate cultures when various hierarchical levels are gathered in a meeting. To that end, I have set up an anonymous survey addressing all the hard topics, to collect straightforward input from the meeting participants. This anonymous input has provided the main material to support discussions along the meeting.
  4. Be social & digital. Face-to-face meetings are – still – often seen as the optimal layout for collaboration. It’s time to bring in social and digital, as collaboration enhancers. Ahead of their meeting, I have created for this executive team a closed group on Yammer. Almost none had used the enterprise social network before. I also showed them how to use the Lync instant messaging system. The idea is to have them move away as much as possible from emails, to work out loud (thanks John Stepper), as a collective, and to develop agility. Hopefully they will continue to use these tools after the meeting.
  5. Be transparent. Both the agenda and the survey outcomes were put at the disposal of participants ahead of the meeting, on the Yammer platform. There was no surprise, because surprise supposes an imbalance in the level of information, which is a disengagement factor.
  6. Connect as human beings. “It’s the human connection that will rewrite the Story of Work in the future” says Louise Altman of The Intentional Workplace. So true! That’s why we started the meeting with the “personal journey mapping”, a very simple exercise I’d seen in an inspiring brainstorming session organized by The Loop. Each person successively draws his/her personal journey on a world (or country) map, while commenting it for the other participants. Suddenly, this person becomes more than a professional with an assigned role. Connection can take place at a much more interesting level: as human beings, with our history and passions.
  7. Share our purpose. Right after drawing their personal journey, participants were invited to answer the question “Why do you work where you work?” If answers were too broad (echoing the company’s mission for example – something that anyone in any other department could have said), they were asked to be specific to their work. By doing so, people were able to realize   that all of them were driven by a deep emotional purpose, and that this purpose was shared.
  8. Make it enjoyable. To engage people, to make them want to cooperate, you have to think about their “user experience” of your meeting. Make it nice, and they will be more likely to participate actively. It doesn’t have to be fancy to be nice. Too much fanciness is even bad for focus. But you can manage time wisely: start the meeting at 9 instead of 8:30, finish early so that people have time to catch up with their mail box. You can also ditch formality: chase corporate talk, have drinks rather than a formal dinner after the meeting, or… sit in the grass together. One lunch was actually a picnic in the nearby park.

The meeting has proved extremely successful, for a ridiculously low cost: food and beverage only. By the way, I can only recommend Ander’s wine (Flying Suitcase), that we enjoyed tasting!

Of course, this was “just” a meeting, and you can’t hope for sustainable, large-scale, global change from a mere gathering of a leadership team. Organizational transformation towards collaboration will require many additional activities over time. But you have to start somewhere, and this is a good start.

What are your ideas to kick off a new collaborative culture?