Focus: The Secret to Driving Corporate Culture Change

Changes in Culture are Powered by Focus

Have you ever wondered what company brands like Zappos, Google, and Apple do to create corporate culture change that sticks?

Don’t let the great perks distract you; there’s more going on than just the trendy and fun benefits that make the headlines. Instead, each company makes use of the secret to effectively creating or changing culture: focus.

Within these organizations, culture strategy focuses on one or two big-picture items: at Zappos, every employee initiative relates back to providing a great customer service experience, and at Google and Apple, benefits are designed to help employees be as productive, innovative, and engaged at work as possible (and not worrying about their dry cleaning or meals).

You don’t have to go big with benefits to tap into the benefits of focus, but you do have to make some tough decisions. Here are three powerful reasons focus is the best way to implement corporate culture change:

Humans Have to Focus

In our experience consulting companies around the world, lack of focus is the most common pitfall when it comes to failed corporate culture change efforts. After all, change is incredibly difficult, both on a personal and organizational level. And since our brains resist change, it takes a lot of concentrated energy to make the change and then stick with it — and even more so when we’re talking about the behavior of large groups of people.

Amazingly enough, research shows us that focus enables us to physically rewire our brains, creating new neural pathways that lead to new behaviors. So, in a busy business environment that’s faced with a constant stream of new, competing priorities, corporate culture change is only possible if we’re empowered to focus on one new behavior at a time.

Within your organization, this might look like taking a 10-point plan and digesting it into one or two large initiatives that encompass those other points. For example, instead of trying to improve all 10 culture qualities at one time, you might focus on one or two qualities that show the greatest need for improvement, like Innovation and Wellness. From there, you can brainstorm messaging and initiatives that reinforce the importance of these qualities and encourage your entire team to focus their efforts in one or two places. In fact, our Culture Strategists apply this methodology when partnering with CultureIQ clients. We synthesize culture survey data into one or two key storylines for leaders to focus on, because it increases their chances of seeing through positive culture change.

Focus Lends Power to Corporate Culture Change Decisions

Ask any Olympic athlete — when your brain is distracted and your energies are divided, you can’t perform at an elite level. And that’s just what’s going on at an organizational level when you ask your employees to change several different kinds of behaviors at once. Focus, on the other hand, allows you to organize your resources and attention around a single theme and drive powerful corporate culture change.

For example, inspired by the research around employee’s need to work for a greater purpose, the accounting firm KPMG decided to put all its efforts around re-shaping its culture and building a stronger emotional connection to the firm. Using a multi-pronged approach featuring a highlight video, vivid posters, and requests for employee stories, the firm shared powerful stories about its involvement in World War II, the 1981 U.S. hostage situation in Iran, and Nelson Mandela’s South African election in 1994. As a result of this focused push, the company’s culture survey scores improved and the company itself jumped 17 places on FORTUNE’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

Focus Builds Cultural Inertia for Corporate Culture Change

In a previous article, we discussed the concept of cultural inertia and how a company’s culture has a tendency to stay the same as it ages and builds cultural uniformity. In a Harvard Business Review article about creating culture change that sticks, the healthcare organization Aetna learned that focus builds cultural inertia first hand. Researchers found that when the leadership team focused on a few key behaviors, employees developed additional ways to reinforce them, leading to even more adoption over time.

This is a great example of how cultural inertia builds over time to support the changes you’re making — for better or worse. If you divide your efforts, your culture will become more and more scattered. But the more focused you are on a specific corporate culture change, the more powerful the cultural inertia behind the change will be.

If you’re serious about creating culture change, focus on a few critical shifts in behavior rather than trying to completely overhaul your culture all at once. Dividing your efforts into a large number of small changes may seem like a quick way to effect a lot of change at once, but in reality it will only divide your energy and lead to lackluster results.

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