HR April 2016

Changing corporate culture

During more than 25 years in Japan, there is one topic that always comes up in conversation—organisational change. The only trouble is that it’s often just talk; nothing changes.

Change. You’d think it was the scariest word in the English language.

If you are someone who really wants to make a difference, get results and do work that matters, change has got to be at the top of your agenda.

So, how do you get started? How do you change your corporate culture?

It doesn’t start with pronouncements, such as “we have to change” or “you have to change”. With this approach, you’ll get you a lot of heads nodding in agreement but unfortunately no action. Instead, try asking three questions:

  1. What do we need to start doing?
  2. What do we need to stop doing?
  3. What do we need to keep doing?

Ask everyone in the organisation. In Japan, if you try this in a meeting, you’ll most likely be met with silence. Make it easy for people to voice their true opinions. Give them three pieces of paper featuring the questions, let them write things down anonymously, and have a convenient collection place to submit the papers. You could also do this via a website or by posting in the office three large pieces of newsprint with the questions. Give people a week to respond.

After the deadline, go through the data collected with a group of people chosen from different parts of the firm. If some people volunteer to help, this is even better. You have to be involved; don’t delegate this task. You’ll learn a lot and—with the help of others—you’ll come to understand some of the reasons behind the responses. There is usually a lot that is unspoken in Japan, so going through the data with others will help you read between the lines.

Identify the issues that are mentioned most and announce them, either through posts or, even better, at an internal meeting. If you’ve got a large organisation, you can do this in a series of meetings.

Now comes the hard part. You have to act on the requests. People want a chance to work on global teams—figure out a way to do it. People want to align the performance appraisal system with results—make a plan to do it. People want to focus on the products that are selling and retire some sleepers—maybe it’s time to do it.

Don’t disparage any suggestion. Beware of saying that something is impossible. How you handle these meetings reflects your commitment to change. You won’t be expected to do everything requested. People are reasonable. But you will be expected to do something. If some changes can’t be done right away, explain why, or create a timeline for when they can be addressed.

You don’t have to do everything by yourself. In fact, it’s better if you get people involved. Ask the question, “who can help me with this?” You’ll be surprised by those willing to help when the idea is theirs.

Although it’s tempting to address the low-hanging fruit, such as having tissues in the conference room, focus on what is important and what will get results. You’ll develop more credibility as the culture really does change.