The Art of Transformation: Part 1 – Transforming culture

Our agency partner, 4and20million improve people and teams, transforming culture through a range of modern training and consultancy services. We spoke to co-founder, Alex Heywood about their views, approach and experience of business transformation.

transforming culture

As experts in transforming culture, what does transformation mean to 4and20million?

We first heard the ubiquitous use of the term about 5 years ago. As in “this is the year of transformation – it’s what our clients want and need. We need to be able to deliver that transformation!”

Since that somewhat nebulous introduction to the topic, we’ve attempted to avoid like the plague any use of the phrase even though transforming culture is what we do. Frankly, our view of the word ‘transformation’ is that it’s too often synonymous with an unhealthy, obsessive pursuit of constant change with no real destination in mind. The cries go out. “Change is inevitable. Transformation is necessary.”

Of course things change. Yet the pursuit of transformation can become an addiction. And as with all addictions, a blind pursuit of the holy grail can have unintended ramifications. The human impact of constant change is anxiety, unease and poor performance. The blasé dismissal of people who don’t welcome change at all times does many of our businesses a massive disservice.

Transformation can come at the expense of doing the simple things well. The implicit suggestion is that we can chase the future rather than attempt to perfect the present. Too often the word propels people towards an unthinking acceptance of new technological advances irrespective of the actual benefit or human cost. So we view the phrase with a healthy scepticism.

Yet, we welcome transformation when it is necessary, when its pursuit can be explained and when it has a benefit for the people working in an organisation and the customers it serves. At 4and20million, when we use the phrase transformation, we use it in the context of changing attitudes to the way we currently work.

  • Our industrial age working practices need to be transformed to reflect the modern reality of work.
  • Our relationship with technology should be transformed to ensure it serves us rather than dictates our behaviour.
  • Our workplaces should be transformed to become safe – not soft – environments in which valuable, creative work can flourish.

Transformation of our relationship with work for betterment of our businesses and the people who make them tick. That’s the type of transformation we can really get on board with.

What are the risks of transforming culture and the business model?

We applaud the simplicity of the Studio North view on transformation:

Transformation begins with an exciting but simple brand vision, driven by strong leadership, a sense of purpose and a genuine belief that something will change and improve for the better.

The key phrase above is ‘genuine belief’. The real risk in triggering an enormous shift in vision, behaviours or product is simply expecting everyone to share in your passion for change. 4and20million believe that the absence of belief is the major risk when transforming a business model.

How many supposed transformations fail to materialise or lose momentum because the team doesn’t “genuinely believe” that something will change for the better? This risk can be broken down into two parts:

  • The first – people might not believe in the change.
  • The second – people might fear the change.

And the solution to both concerns is so elegantly simple that it is often overlooked. It’s a concept so powerful that it can either accelerate or derail the success of the entire transformation project.

Clear communication.

There is an evolutionary reason that clear communication is the most potent tool in your armoury while transforming culture.

Whilst humans are the change animal – ironically, we are not naturally predisposed towards it. We are constantly on the lookout for threats. Change disrupts our status quo and stimulates a physical reaction – our fight-or-flight response. This response is triggered by the amygdala, a small region in the middle of the brain that processes emotion and that the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has termed “fear central”.

The amygdala is constantly on the lookout for things that are uncertain, ambiguous, or novel, including potential threats in our environment. It’s sensitive enough to react to something as mildly worrying as a picture of a frowning stranger. If our amygdala picks up anything of concern, the fight-flight reaction gets triggered. This happens more quickly that we can consciously think.

The amygdala prompts activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which responds by flooding our bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones prompt a series of physiological responses, including increased heart rate, narrowing of vision, muscle contraction, and the flow of blood from the brain into the trunk. Each of these responses increases our ability to either fight or flee.

The prospect of transformation kick-starts all of this.
Clear communication can limit the impact of the danger.
Clear communication doesn’t just happen on a whim. It takes time, patience and planning. So in order to mitigate the risk of transformation, the following actions can boost your chances of success.

  • Communicate clearly to the team who are going to drive the change.
  • Spend time planning how you will communicate any news.
  • What seems inconsequential to you might be seismic to your team – so actively solicit advice beyond your natural allies.
  • Spend time understanding who will be your advocates for transforming culture.
  • Spend time planning the order in which you communicate with your team.
  • Spend time considering the environment in which you communicate.
  • Do everything you can to bring your team on board.

The problem with many business transformation projects is that they forget to serve the humans that are needed to make them a reality. Clear, considered, thoughtful communication can make or break any process of business transformation. By remembering this – you can reduce the risks of transforming culture!

Can you share an example of best practice business transformation?

This is not an example of technological transformation – but a behavioural one. (It’s a story shamelessly nicked from The Culture Code by Dan Coyle – highly recommended reading!)

Danny Meyer is a New York restaurant owner. Most restaurants fail – especially in NYC. His don’t. He has opened 30 in the last 25 years and they are thriving award-winners. As his empire grew, he suffered growing pains. When he was there, working on the ground, everything was great. When he went to work in another of his restaurants, the service and scores suffered. He transformed how he treated his team as the business grew. He believed that the transformation from running a single restaurant through to overseeing a restaurant empire would require him to embrace a new style of working that ensured his vision was present even when he was not. He realised he needed to be clearer on what he expected of his staff so that the delivery of service was brilliant if he was there or not.

He did this through catchphrases.

He sat down and worked out what was important to him. How he wanted the service in each restaurant to feel. And then he took the time to communicate this clearly to his team. Crucially, he did it in a way that empowered them to bring their own individual brilliance to the experience.

One of his catchphrases was – Put us out of business with your generosity.
Another was – Collect the dots and connect the dots.

In reality, he wanted each of his staff to work out why their customers were there – collect the dots and then add to that experience. He used examples such as a family celebrating a graduation and the waitress deciding that the right thing to do would be to take over glasses of champagne. He wasn’t asking all his staff to be the same type of server – they could be quiet, they could be chatty, they could be informal…..they could be true to their own personality. However, they all knew how to deliver an excellent level of service.

Most transformation is dictatorial, directional – delivered top-down. This reduces the potential for individual autonomy and limits the potential for creative thought. Meyer took a different approach. His transformation cocktail included the right blend of direction from the leader and the celebration of individual autonomy.

This was the foundation of his business transformation strategy – from a single restaurant to business empire. A focus on human connections. Clear communication with a team. Successful implementation of behaviours across a growing organisation. Retention of individuality. Distinctiveness of experience. The behavioural transformation and the subsequent success of Danny Meyer’s business is a useful case study in how to deliver effective, sustained change in a business. 

What are the key attributes of a successful transformational leader?

We believe there are three key responsibilities for any successful leader that can vastly increase the potential success of any transformation project.

Build safety.

People are constantly looking out for danger. Your role as leader is to reassure them that you have their backs. In a period of change, it is vital that you don’t neglect the people you serve. Take the time to really get to know them, communicate with them and appreciate that your vision of transformation may unnerve them.

Give up control.

More orders, directives and restrictions lead to demotivated teams. Yet periods of transforming culture are often accompanied by an increase in precisely these behaviours. This is the time you need to encourage your people to grow in their roles and get better. In order to do that, they need to have an opportunity to fall down, learn and develop. Therefore, where possible, try and find the opportunities where you relinquish control and place trust in your team. Do this, and you’re likely to arrive at your destination more quickly.

Bring positive intent.

Any time you are not feeling optimistic, engaged, upbeat, focused and enthusiastic – you are suboptimal. Emotional contagion is the phenomenon of our brains being wired to sync to the emotional state of the people around us. As a leader, your influence cannot be overstated. Actively choosing to be positive whenever you are communicating messages about your transformation will boost the potency of your message.

What final advice would you offer a CEO or founder about to embark on a significant transformation project?

  • Get your people on board.
  • Solicit their views.
  • Take time to listen to them.
  • Be realistic.
  • Consider the human impact of the changes you’ll make.
  • Don’t assume immediate buy-in.
  • Spend as much time as possible considering how you communicate your transformation internally as you will externally.
  • Communicate clearly.Without the buy-in of team who make things tick – your transformation will stall.

By elevating the importance of communication and humanity in any project – you are far more likely to achieve success. 

About Alex Heywood

Alex has a long-held fascination with People, Teams and Culture. His drive is to help groups of people come together to be greater than the sum of their parts and create their best ever work. With a background in client leadership, marketing and new business development, he has 14 years of experience of working with diverse teams and creating environments in which they can work together effectively in an environment that is productive, inspiring and enjoyable.

Alex’s expertise lies in helping businesses craft stories and develop working environments that unite teams, inspire individuals and create enviable cultures. An accomplished blogger and presenter, Alex has provided keynote addresses on workplace culture and human behaviour at events such as Marketing Show North and City-Work.

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