By Tracey Swanepoel;

A somewhat heretical thought hit me recently: what, if any, is the value of a culture-change strategy?

Most culture-change strategies are predicated on the assumption of implementation: i.e. when they are implemented things will change, be different, better. Competitive advantage will be realised! We will create a great place to work!

A powerful idea, no dispute. But why then do so many culture-change strategies and desired culture-shifts end up as nothing more than laminated posters on walls, or thick dossiers gathering dust, like shelved scripts for movies never made?

Could it be (and this is what feels like heresy, being a “strategist” myself) that many culture-change strategies are just that: blockbuster ideas, even with riveting plot twists (‘bringing in diversity here, creating constructive dialogue there’), that simply never “get made”?

Perhaps all the time spent in culture-change “bosberaads”, crunching on peppermints, and muttering to colleagues that this is a “good session,” deludes leadership teams into thinking that because they have spent so much time discussing it, debating it and thinking about it – that they have actually done it.

Most executives admit to that gnawing sense of unease on returning to the office after the high of a great session. They sense that they should do something different, but… What? When? How?

How disconcerting, when the real work of ‘re-wiring the organisation’ (leadership role-modelling new behaviours, re-aligning targets, measuring productiveness differently), actually awaits the moment we get back to the office and turn off the out-of-office auto reply.

And so time goes on, very little changes. The aspirational strategy is blamed – it’s not clear; it’s too idealistic; it’s too abstract. The leadership team convene for yet another culture-change session to “fine tune” it. (The corporate equivalent of “hair of the dog”?).

No one talks about the real challenge which is not to come up with a more compelling aspirational culture. Rather, it is how to lead so that employees begin to live it!

Hence my opening question: does culture-change strategy have any value at all? Yes. But: its value lies in your employees understanding, believing, and aligning with it. Collins and Porras (in ‘Built to Last’) go so far as to say that a mediocre strategy with a fully aligned employee contingent will guarantee more success than an inspirational one carried only by a handful of people.

Alignment is more comprehensive than implementation. Alignment speaks of the internal: the intellectual understanding of strategic concepts; the emotional buy-in to a belief system; the motivation and will to act according to a set of parameters which may be largely intangible (values and culture). Alignment cannot be commanded.

So, what to do the “morning after”? Enjoy the Bosberaad, but when you get back, keep in mind: once the thinking is over, the doing is all that matters:

Leadership is the channel: There is no match for leadership credibility in communicating and modelling the culture-change strategy. The fabulous video or spectacular intervention cannot work alone; whereas if embodied by leadership they become supercharged tools reinforcing the story of organisational change.
“Say it again, Sam”: Alignment is not a one-off event. Just like you would never make an ad and flight it only once, so too the desired culture needs to be “flighted” / discussed every day so that people know it, breathe it and live it.
Expected behaviour must be defined upfront: The abstract words need to be demonstrated by concrete actions and examples. People need to know what they need to do differently.
Take time to put a personal commitment plan in place: A list of actions that you will take to reinforce the desired culture. This should include talking about, gathering and triggering practical anecdotes and experiences that make abstract culture concepts come to life.
Practising, modelling and articulating the strategy: This is the only way to achieve successful employee engagement with your organisational goals. Then you can begin to measure the value.

Tracey Swanepoel is the principal of Thinkspiration: Strategy to Story. She’ll be speaking at our All-Africa Employee Engagement Indaba & Conference in Johannesburg 17-18 September.

Indaba Day is free to HR professionals – for more information and to register click here.

As featured on HR Future.