Most books on change conveniently dodge the challenge of culture. After all, changing an organizational culture is difficult. It’s easier to deliver a tactical project than it is to change the way that people think. However, Roger Connors and Tom Smith rightfully think that until you change the beliefs embedded into the culture, you’ll never achieve the breakthrough results you really want. In Change the Culture, Change the Game: The Breakthrough Strategy for Energizing Your Organization and Creating Accountability for Results, they lay out a process for getting different results based on the foundation of accountability and beliefs.

Working Backwards: Results, Actions, Beliefs, Experiences

In the end, everyone is pursuing a change, because they want a different set of results than what they’re getting today – or they predict they’ll get in the future. The point of the exercise is the tip of Connors and Smith’s pyramid. However, to get to different results, you need different actions. It’s the actions that lead to the results – but what leads to the actions?

Our beliefs lead to our actions. Certainly, there are mitigating factors like skills and motivations, but fundamentally, we will act out our beliefs if we’re not influenced by anything else. Similarly, if our beliefs aren’t right, then they’ll pull our actions back. We can “fake it” with our actions for a time, but ultimately, we’ll revert to our core beliefs. That leaves the question about how we develop our beliefs.

Our beliefs are based on our experiences. Our beliefs must make sense of our experiences. We’ll keep shifting our beliefs until we can make our experiences fit – or we’re able to ignore incongruent experiences. Actually, we’ll believe what we want – until we can’t. That is, we’ll believe what we want until the weight of the experiences we have can no longer be denied. (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)

Shortcut to the Top: Behaviors Only

In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, we often look for the shortcut, the quick answer, and the easy results. That’s what happens when organizations decide to skip over experiences and beliefs and jump solely to actions while hoping to get results. While this strategy may work in the short term, over time, the pressure to perform actions in congruence with beliefs becomes stronger.

It’s like diets. They work for a while, but for the most part, they fail in the long term, because they’re working on the surface problem instead of the core beliefs. Reports are everywhere about people gaining more weight than they lose, with only a few who manage to keep weight off for more than 3 years. Eventually, the core beliefs that make up the person’s eating habits erode the logical control of their actions. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for a model for how our beliefs – or emotions – can override our conscious control.)

Building Beliefs

Most people are curious about how others hold beliefs that differ from theirs. The answer is simple. They have different beliefs because they have different experiences. They grew up in different cultures, neighborhoods, and families. These environments impart a set of experiences on people, and those experiences add up to the beliefs that they hold.

If you want to change the beliefs of the people in the organization, the path is paved with experiences that clearly indicate to everyone what the beliefs you want them to hold are. There are four levels to experiences:

  • Level 1 – These send a clear and unmistakable message about what beliefs you want people to hold.
  • Level 2 – These experiences need to be interpreted for people to understand their meaning and the beliefs that you want them to hold.
  • Level 3 – These experiences won’t influence beliefs no matter how much explaining that you do.
  • Level 4 – These experiences detract from the beliefs that you want people to hold, and as much as possible, they should be avoided.

Culture and Alignment are a Process

Creating a culture is hard enough, but it’s even harder to maintain that culture when the organization grows and changes. It’s hard to build the experience into the lore of the culture – a permanent and unmistakable message about what the organization believes. When Johnson and Johnson pulled all the Tylenol off the shelves of every store in the United States as the result of a few tampered packages in Chicago, they sent a clear and unmistakable message that the safety and health of their customers was more important than profits. This incident ended up becoming a part of corporate lore – and more broadly to the world around the organization in this case.

In most cases, it’s hard to find or create the kind of type 1 experiences that naturally embed themselves in the lore of the organization. However, it is often possible to convert type 1 and type 2 experiences into persistent stories that can help to maintain the culture of the organization – if they’re reinforced.

Maintaining a corporate culture requires continuous work on the alignment of the organization around focusing challenges and opportunities that are compatible with the corporate culture. This requires continuous work, as both the environment around the organization and the internal skills and challenges shift.

Neither culture nor alignment is a “one and done” type of project. Instead, it’s necessary to continue to work at them long after the process has started and reached a level of success.

Focused Feedback

Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor explains how feedback should be clear and complete. Cy Wakeman makes a similar point about being direct in No Ego. Connors and Smith agree that feedback should be candid, clear, and complete. More importantly, they share a concern that people tend to dismiss negative feedback.

Before dismissing feedback, they recommend asking four questions:

  1. Is it accurate?
  2. Is there a basis for this feedback?
  3. Is it relevant or irrelevant?
  4. Is it right or wrong?

Some feedback will be baseless. Some will have a foundation but won’t rise to the measure of being relevant. Overall, you’ll have to decide whether the feedback warrants your attention – but give it the benefit of the doubt when you can. At the very least, you can validate the feedback with others and see whether it’s something that you’ll need to address or not.

Two Pyramids

In the end, there’s a pyramid that begins with the current experiences, the current beliefs, the current actions, and current results. There’s another pyramid with the new results you want that are based on new actions, new beliefs, and new experiences. If you want to really change the culture of your organization, perhaps it starts with one behavior: reading Change the Culture, Change the Game.