When tackling change management, break it down to the basics

As a general rule, the culture change process should describe behavior in terms of attitudes/expectations, not actions/results

Dear Bob ...

Our management team just finished reading your new book, "Bare Bones Change Management." We compared notes and decided to try tackling a culture change using the techniques you described.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob offers more tips on a reader's culture change plan in "Treat culture change as engineering: Form follows function." | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

That's where we got bogged down. Every time we took a situation and tried to describe how our employees respond (in both positive and negative terms, as you recommended), we ended up laying out processes. For example, we tried the situation "a major server goes down." The next thing we knew, we were describing our troubleshooting procedure.

I'm pretty sure this isn't what you had in mind.

Where are we going wrong? More important, what do we do about it?

- Culturally Deprived

Dear Deprived ...

This happens a lot when we start working with leadership teams on culture change, and it's understandable.

Off the Record submissions

To quickly summarize for those who haven't read the book, the culture change process starts with a characterization of the culture's current state, described in situation/response statements. It's easy to fall into the trap of describing the response in terms of too-specific behaviors, which is what your management team has ended up doing.

What you need to do is move from specifics to generalizations. "When a major server fails," is too specific, as is "our employees first try to restart it, then check the power cord, then the power supply, then ..."

As you suspect, your team is straying out of the realm of culture and into the realm of procedure. Instead of "when a major server fails," try "when there's a crisis," "when there's a major outage," or some other, broader description of the situation.

Likewise the response: "When there's a crisis, our employees follow standard procedures to deal with it." That's the positive statement. The negative version might be: "When there's a crisis, our employees show no imagination in finding solutions. They simply follow the recipe without thinking."

Don't worry that the negative version sounds insulting. It's supposed to (but be careful about sharing these descriptions, which are for planning purposes only). The point is to help the management team recognize that all responses have positive and negative characteristics as a way of breaking through preconceived biases, like "process = good" or "bureaucracy = bad," especially as in most cases process equates to bureaucracy.

Then when the time comes to define the desired cultural response, you can be careful to describe it in positive terms, reserving negative descriptions for possible alternatives.

The general rule for cultural descriptions, whether positive or negative, is that they describe behavior in a way that reflects attitudes and expectations, not actions and results.

I'll also tell you that describing culture isn't all that easy. It's a knack you have to develop, not something you can generate by following a formula.

- Bob

This story, "When tackling change management, break it down to the basics," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.