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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422

Does Your New Culture
Have Amnesia?

build a better "new" by connecting to the "old"

Sometimes an organization faces a major change that is felt by every employee -- and by customers, members, suppliers, anyone who touches the organization.

This kind of shift is more common than one might think. Consider:

  • the startup with a few people that suddenly mushrooms into a business with many more employees, new systems, new demands and opportunities.
  • acquisitions, mergers, spin-offs that create an entirely new landscapes for everyone involved.
  • changes in requirements and regulations or shifts in technology and customer expectations that quickly change the rules of the game for an entire industry.
  • strategic shifts that don't seem so pervasive and fundamental at first -- a change of legal entity type, a new slate of directors, new partners, rebranding -- but that turn out to require rethinking just about every person's job.

All these situations share a massive need for communication, mentoring, training, and new supporting tools (procedures, documentation, and similar resources). Sometimes the effort devoted to those individual pieces is so intense that it obscures employees' basic understanding of what the company is about.

In effect, the old culture is lost, without a new, coherent story or vision to replace it. Just when you need all your employees pulling together, taking the same approaches to your customers, your operations, your opportunities, everyone loses his or her way.

You Believe in Culture

Culture may be hard to define, but you respond to it, as a customer. Whether in business or in private life, you probably work with one or two vendors -- your accounting service, a technology adviser, your auto mechanic, or your dry cleaner -- mainly because there is something about the way they work with you that you prefer to their competition. Their products may not be better, but the overall value of what you receive is better, because their employees go beyond following a set of steps in a procedural guide to make decisions about how to meet your needs. (Judgment is a powerful competitive advantage -- see my case study on developing judgment.)

Culture, then, is that internal compass that enables employees to make decisions that are better than the competition's, decisions that advance management strategies and values. Employees' actions demonstrate a real understanding of the business the organization is in, what it is trying to do.

We've all dealt with employees who have no such connection to their organization, or who work for companies that really have no culture. And we avoid them as much as possible!

Don't let employees make up their own culture!

Everything can get a bit confused in the face of one of the major shifts. Under these conditions, the greatest danger is lack of communication.

Oh, you have lots of excuses. Things are insanely busy, you don't know all the answers yet.

But if you don't explicitly guide your employees from the old culture and conditions to the new, they'll ask their own questions and come up with their own answers. In fact, they'll all come up with different answers, until you really don't have a culture anymore, so there is no common compass for the people you depend on to make the business go. Morale suffers, and valuable people leave, not because of where you're going, but because they don't know where you're going, or what they are supposed to do to help you get there.

You don't need all the answers in advance

Ever notice how frustrated you get when your plane is delayed, but nobody says why? They just keep promising that they'll have an update "shortly".

But if you're lucky enough to be booked on an airline that volunteers information about what caused the delay, and when it really will be resolved, your attitude improves enormously. You wait more patiently, with much less resentment, when you are better informed.

Most employees will stick with you even on a bumpy ride if you share what you know, and what you don't know. They'll wait for the answers, if you keep them in the conversation.

Explicit Connections Prevent Cultural Amnesia

Great teachers bring students along by building on what they already know. Every day isn't a new topic, new context, new world. It is an extension of where they were yesterday. No matter how radically you are transforming your organization, you got to the new vision from the old one, you designed the new strategies with the knowledge and experience you had from the previous situation.

Recreate that journey for your employees. Reaffirm the parts of the past that still have value, explicitly, and connect them to new skills and knowledge and attitudes and methods.

Would you really rather start on this new phase of your business with a whole new team? Won't you get there faster with the people you know, and with what they know and can do?

If so, make sure your employees know that. Show them how their past is of value, without hedging about the need for change, tha new ways of doing things are crucial to success. Make the connection between the old and the new, and you'll find you're much farther down the road to the new than you will be if you just forget the past.

It is your past that has given you the opportunity to respond to, and thrive in, the new conditions. Don't let it just dribble away because you're too busy to talk about the old, during the transition, while you explain the new.

© 2007 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

More "Think Pieces" | Training Tipsheet Reprints |Case Studies

Case Study

Controlling Rumor Mills

Developing Judgment in Employees