The Culture You Have Now is Not What It Was Pre-Pandemic

October 9, 2020
Posted in Change
October 9, 2020 Jamie Notter

A lot of organizations are feeling perhaps a slight bit of relief that they’ve made it this far through this crisis. The sudden shift to remote work wasn’t quite as disruptive as they thought it might be, and they’re taking a hit on revenue, but thankfully it’s not a death blow. They still have the eventual (and not quite clear) return to the workplace ahead of them, but all in all, it seems like the scariest part of this crisis may be behind them.

And I have to say, that is worthy of some congratulations. As much as organizations have historically fallen victim to the “we’ve always done it that way” mentality, and complain that change takes forever, when this ugly virus forced their hands, many organizations did a good job at turning on a dime, at least when it came to things like figuring out video call technology or converting in-person events into virtual events. Pivot is the word of the day.

Despite all the tumult, however, there is one thing that has been sitting there over the last few months, mostly ignored, and that’s your culture. Specific pieces of your culture have probably changed, like around remote work, but I can tell you, if you had silo issues before this all started, you probably still have silo issues. The same with transparency, inclusion, or hierarchy issues.

And here’s why that could be a huge problem: The culture you have now was built for the world we had a few months ago, not the world we have today. And probably not the world we will have in just a few months. You know those silo issues you had? Well they are DIFFERENT silo issues now, because the impact of your territoriality or lack of cross-functional collaboration is different in today’s environment of rapid change that it was back in 2019.

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That means that part of the “new normal,” unfortunately, is that most organizations are simply unaware of what is right or wrong about their culture right now. I think that’s costly, because we are all cutting corners and trying to do more with less, which is the absolute worst time to be dealing with the friction caused by a misaligned culture. We’ve been arguing for years for the need to continuously align your culture with what makes you successful. Today, it has become an imperative.

So here’s what you need to do. Your culture work needs to move ahead simultaneously on three tracks. I’ll adapt Ford CEO James Hackett’s “now, near, far” framework to lay it out for you.

Now: fix your immediate friction points. Now that we’ve proved we can turn on a dime, let’s do that with culture. Quickly shine a light on the parts of your culture that are creating operational friction—and fix them. We have some examples of some quick fixes around remote work here. Don’t worry about the deep long-term culture change that might be needed (that’s just not in this section; see below). Once one immediate-term friction point is fixed, move onto the next. Intentionally pick the things you think you can change quickly.

Near: connect the dots around the impact your culture has on success. While you’re doing the quick fixes, layer on two additional tasks. First, start to measure the impact of those quick fixes. How did it make things better? How did it improve performance? Second, start looking past the quick fixes and come up with some hypotheses about how some slightly bigger change efforts might increase the impact. What if you weren’t doing one-off projects—how would you map out some bigger change efforts that would create more meaningful (and measurable) impact?

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Far: Build a long-term, principle-based culture playbook. In the pre-COVID world, this is where we started. In our culture design projects, we took an internal team through a multi-month process to develop a set of culture priorities and then a playbook of maybe 40 or 50 plays that could be run, over time, to better align culture with success. This work still needs to happen—the clear principles and the backlog of different action items are critical for the long-term success and continuity of the culture work. Now you just need to do that work in parallel with the “now” and “near” work. In fact, the work at each layer will continuously inform the work of the other two, if you do it right.

This may sound like a lot, but like everything else these days, the key will be balance. You don’t have to do all three layers by next week. Pick and choose where you focus your efforts to make sure that the work continues to move forward, but cut yourself some slack if you have to let some of the work sit for a bit. But don’t ignore the culture, or the friction could build to the point where you simply can’t keep up with the change.

Photo by Paulius Dragunas on Unsplash


Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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