What Makes Your Company Great? Do More of That.

posted by WMC

As companies grow they need to evolve. But with evolution also comes the risk that the company might lose the “secret sauce” that made it a winner in the first place: the work expands, new people come on board and the organization breaks into silos that no longer function as a unit. To scale successfully, companies need to find a way to grow while also hanging on to what made them successful in the first place.

We’ve all heard the horror stories . . . According to Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, start-up failure rate is 30%–40% within the first three years, which increases to 70%–80% when including failure to meet ROI projections. According to CB Insights, one of the top three reasons start-ups fail is an inability to build the right team.

I have worked in organizations undergoing cultural change related to growth as an executive and as a consultant, and I have seen two approaches to managing change work.

  • A company launches a massive top-down cultural change initiative, embedding shared values across the organization. This is effective, but it is also time-consuming and costly, and it requires strong, sustained executive involvement.
  • A company identifies desirable practices already embedded in its culture and sets out to nurture and grow them. This is also an effective approach, and it is less costly and more sustainable than a top-down change.

Successfully pulling off a massive top-down change has a high risk of failure if there is no long term sustained focus. However, I have seen the second approach work effectively many times and advocate that it can work in most companies . . . if the leadership team is committed and working together.

For example, I was brought in to lead change management for a company that was growing rapidly and beginning to grapple with instituting increased structure and more complex processes. When I arrived on the scene, I could see that some teams were adopting new ways of working, but they were not as aligned and integrated as they could be.

I took the second approach described above. I began by probing individuals and teams to discover what was already working. I set up interviews and workshops with people in every function and at every level across the organization. We talked about how they made decisions, how they communicated across the silos, which methodologies they used to execute on projects, how they measured performance and how they managed people. These conversations revealed a handful of critical best practices that could be nurtured across the company.

The next step was to highlight these critical practices and encourage teams to continue with them. I accomplished this by strengthening inter-departmental communication and establishing a more robust reward process. I encouraged teams to share best practices so they would become seeded across the organization. Individual teams and departments began to conduct post mortems and schedule lunch and learns. Also with my encouragement, the executives began to publicly celebrate wins—big and small—such as product launches and project delivery milestones.

Over time, our efforts were rewarded: teams began to emulate each other’s best practices and one success led to another and then another as teams copied each other’s approaches. These crucial, systematic changes were not quick, but everyone was patient as they saw the incremental improvements. In the end, persistent focus on the handful of crucial behaviours led to a wholesale, organic, healthy change sweeping through the company.

Organizational change is one of our most common challenges in business today, and it’s also one of the most difficult to tackle. While conventional wisdom might favour launching a large corporate cultural change program, a grassroots approach focusing on what makes each team great, and doing more of that, actually has a better chance of sustained impact. Companies that scale successfully identify the practices that made the start-up great—and safeguard those practices through the company’s expansion. The key is identifying the strengths a company already has—and relying on the power, knowledge and passion of the people that work there. That’s a big plus!

Nancy Icely – WMC Toronto

Click here to view Nancy’s article on Linkedin.

The opinions represented here do not necessarily represent WMC’s views as a whole.