Trend Analysis: How to Change Corporate Culture
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A best practice from the 2b AHEAD ThinkTank: Why 2b AHEAD changed from normal offices to a co-working space, and from a corporate staff to a team of indenpendent thinkers!
Why a change in culture can only happen through breaking the rules, and why some people will quit
What you can learn from us for your own corporate-culture transformation
In today's trend analysis I will not whisk you away to our world of scientific thoughts on future developments, but will help you to share in the insights that we have gained over the last six months in our institute.
For on the opposite end of the spectrum from visionary future images and clever strategic recommendations, the question of actually implementing the implied changes needed is the #1 problem for most companies and boards that I speak with. Let's not kid ourselves — we all maintain a corporate culture that is based on the rules and routines of the past (and often cements them as well). You probably have the same experience as I do here.
Because my institute, the 2b AHEAD ThinkTank, has among its core values the obligation not only to preach change, but also to truly live it out, we have recently tried a radical change in our corporate culture. In doing so, we managed to increase the speed and quality of our work, to improve the self-organization and stress resilience of our staff, and even achieved a clearly noticeable rise in satisfaction and motivation in our team.
In my trend analysis of today, I would like to describe for you what we did and what the end result was from the perspective of an innovation consultant. But not only that! I have also asked my employees to give their no-holds-barred assessments of the process and its results ... from interns to full-time staff, from managers to executives.
I promise that you will make some interesting discoveries. You may even recognize the core situation itself from your own life and work. And you are likely to take something useful for your own change processes from our approach to, and the results of, our experiment. Feel free to copy our redefinition of the office as a co-working space and test it in your own organization!
How it all began!
My story begins at the start of this year. In my gut! I found myself going to my own institute with a feeling of unease that grew with each passing day. With no joy, no fun. Worse yet: Whenever I had the opportunity, I fled the office to write my books, articles, and speeches in a number of downtown cafes. The reason was obvious: We had grown quickly. Suddenly there appeared more people, more desks, more power cables ... always with the aim of completing our many new tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. The formerly open communication between all team members at an innovation institute with "both hands full of staff" was gone. In its place came teams that compartmentalized themselves, staff that hardly spoke to each other, and senseless rules of which no one knows the origin even today.
In short: The atmosphere and working culture, the rules and patterns of daily interaction hindered my creativity day by day, sapping my energy as well. And of course this didn't only apply to me, but also to my staff. I could see it in their faces – and in sinking quality levels. The main difference between us was that, as the boss, I could get away to a nice cafe while they had to stay on-site and suffer the circumstances as the norm.
At the same time I also discovered what I found the most important symptom of this unacceptable situation: our speed. We innovation consultants talk a lot about speed: about speedboats, lean startups, and agile innovation cycles. Yet seldom had I seen so clearly the importance of the same concept of speed for the shared "wavelength" of a team. The most serious conclusion I drew then was: most people in our management team and all of our external consultants viewed a high work tempo as normal. Many of our in-house staff, in contrast, considered a dramatically slower work tempo as normality. You may know the vague feeling: It becomes a real symptom when someone in the hallway bumps into a colleague or rails loudly because their way was blocked yet again by a slow-moving coworker. Naturally both parties view their own pace as normal at all times, and wonders what's wrong with the other guy.
The seriousness of the situation, of course, was also viewed differently among management staff, from "completely normal" to "unacceptable!" It was impossible to come to a consensus. We were helped by the fact that a simple situation created the mandate for a change process: Our rapid growth meant that we simply had too little working space. This was the tipping point from which necessity and practicality began to connect.
And so we started our journey of becoming an institute where no one has their own desk ...
Culture = Rules + Routines
It is an oft-cited but thereby no less important insight that common organizational models in business, politics, and society have two historical models: the Roman army and the Catholic Church. Both generate stability, not innovation! These classic organizations offer a structured framework in which the daily routines and thought patterns of every member are formed. We have all been shaped by this paradigm through school, job training, university, internships, and our previous employers.
The result is obvious: When these individuals with their cemented routines and thought patterns enter a new company without a structured framework, then they will continue to follow their old patterns and routines … and in time will themselves provide the rules that justify these.
This is what we call corporate culture. It is the sum of the routines of a company's staff plus the set of rules that confirms the rightness of these routines. Even if they're wrong! And suddenly you can't recognize your own company. Exactly this had happened when our institute outgrew being the big family where "everybody talks to everybody else."
Routines can't be broken; Rules can!
Some time before, I had personally sought conversation with the people whose job involves helping their staff to forget old routines so these can be replaced by new ones: professional soccer coaches! After almost every change in coaches, the players have to to forget the previous system their team played by and start training with a new one: with new positions, new plays and combinations ... precisely, with new routines.
The most important statement I heard about this situation came from Thomas Tuchel (DE, Borussia Dortmund). He described how he joined Mainz 05 and found the team obsessed with the routine of playing the ball forward along the edges of the field, then flanking inside for a goal. Obviously it was not very effective: In any case, Tuchel wanted to get rid of these long-line passes.
It was clear to him that forbidding the team to play a long-line game wouldn't achieve anything. It would have been equally fruitless for me to demand my employees to talk more with each other. Do you know those kinds of commands? Well-meant but completely ineffectual? Have you given a few yourself?
Thomas Tuchel chose another route. It was clear to him that routines can neither be broken nor forbidden. But the rules can be! So what did he do? He cut off the corners of the training field. For an entire year, his players didn't train on a standard playing field. Instead, the field had the normal width only at the center line. From there, the sidelines ran directly to the goalposts. Every player who followed the long-line routine would have immediately been out of bounds. Which nobody wants. So in time the players began forming a new routine: They started making diagonal passes. This was exactly what Tuchel wanted ... and achieved without mentioning a single time.
The original speech Thomas Tuchel gave for our institute is available in German on 2b AHEAD TV:
What can we learn from Thomas Tuchel?
Anyone who wants to achieve a change in corporate culture will have to alter something they have no access to: the routines and thought patterns of other people. No one can change another's thought patterns. That person can only do it themselves.
What we can do, however, is take from them the possibility of continuing to follow their old routines – if we consistently, with no compromes, break the rules that give space for those routines. For Thomas Tuchel this was the playing field. For 2b AHEAD, it was the office.
But this is only half the truth, because when the structured framework is redrawn, then new routines will have to be formed. Here as well the person who attempts to prescribe new routines for others will fail. The person who will succeed is the one who gives others the possibility of seeking new routines themselves.
Read on and you will see the point where we failed to consider this truth and what consequences this had ...
How a co-working space functions: 1. Project Room, 2. Communication Room, 3. Silent Room
The conclusion is obvious: What for Thomas Tuchel and his players is the rules of the playing field is for the dynamic nature, creativity, and agility of a company the office. If you want to see your staff become more flexible, then you will have to utterly rob them of any possibility of sitting at the same place for eight hours. Want to see them communicating more? Make it impossible for them to hide behind a desk.
Anyone who wants to make their team forget the old rules that govern offices will need to ban anything that can be visually associated with "the office":
This is why no one on our team - no one - has their own desks anymore. And more: In our entire institute there is not a single recognizable "desk." The only place where ergonomic office chairs, PC monitors, or desk lamps can be found is a single room, completely unrecognizable as an office space, which has become a library. And this is why we no longer have a single bare, white, sterile office wall either.
Instead, we have set up theme roooms: There is the Kilimanjaro Hut, the Garden Room, the Kids' Room, the Broadway and the Buddha Book Room. In each, full-size thematic photo wallpaper removes the cold office character from the formerly conventional office rooms.
Another change is that every room of ours has been assigned a clear function: Our five rooms include two project-work rooms ("project rooms"). There, teams sit together around the coffee table or in a cafe atmosphere to work on their projects. Those who want a little privacy in this group setting can withdraw behind a folding screen and settle in a cozy recliner. These project rooms are normally somewhat loud and chaotic. Those who want more quiet to make calls can go to the communication room. There, ideally, can be found the quiet atmosphere needed to talk on the phone. Here as well, however, writing texts or concentrating on reading, say, a trend study, are also not really feasible. For that we have two silent rooms where talking and making phone calls are forbidden. One of these is arranged like a library. The other offers more space (and a view of Mt. Kilimanjaro!).
Every one of our staff knows that they are required to change seats - and thus also get a helpful change of scenery - every two hours, thus also getting a helpful change of scenery. And everyone leaves their places entirely free of any materials. No "reservations" accepted! The coffee tables are kept free from mounds of paper or hole-punch cemeteries. Instead, they are kept empty, inviting others to sit. For staplers and other utensils, there is an "office materials bar" in every project room similar to the self-service condiments bar at Starbucks.
… And no: We don't have a foosball table!
Keep it cheap, but keep it unexpected
Admittedly: When the idea was born we first consulted with an interior decorator. We invited her to our (then) conventional office rooms in a (conventional) office building. Her face fell as soon as she walked into our workplace. Nothing we said afterwards could brighten it up again. She said that our plan was impossible to realize and that she would definitely have to tear down walls and anyway would first need the 3D data for the spaces in order to plan the interiors. We never contacted her again.
We gave ourselves a clear, low-budget goal: Redoing the rooms could cost no more than 1,000€ per room including tables, chairs, a flat screen TV, a full-service espresso machine, and photo wall murals. We all know how it goes: When there's not a lot available, then we tend to improvise: Old desks are covered and lined with stuffing so that they can be recognized as colorful working spaces, but not as desks. Old shelves are made "invisible," also with material lining. Low-cost elevated tables, coffee tables, folding screens, and armchairs demolish the typical mental picture of an office.
Precisely the destruction of the typical associations with the word "office" that have become burned into our heads remained our goal even after remodeling. Everyone who enters our office first stumbles over a (truly ugly) toxic-green rug and two wine-colored grandpa slippers. I've stopped counting the attempts our employees have made to get rid of them! Fierce discussions were held on the question of whether we shouldn't rather be ashamed to have something like that laying around. The same applied to soccer balls, teddy bears, champagne bottles (full), potted herbs, tomato plants, and plush-toy pigs lying around on tables, sofas, the floor.
Maybe this was also the reason behind the failure behind every attempt to motivate individual staff members to actively carry the project forward with their own ideas during the remodeling work. Instead of motivating them, we ended up demotivating them with our expectations of speed and consistency in realizing the changes. There were weeks when you risked your very reputation among your colleagues by actively pitching in with remodeling. Finally, it was the boss himself who went to IKEA over the weekend to buy gadgets, put stickers on the walls, and to line those desks with stuffing. Maybe it was the easiest way in the end...
Everyone talks about the silent room. Hardly anyone uses it.
One of the biggest hurdles for most team members, obviously, was where the old mounds of paper from the desks should be kept. We solved this problem using a two-step process. First, everyone was allowed to use an unlimited number of pigeon holes for storage. After four months, we got rid of the compartments that no one had touched in the meantime. This was done by staff members themselves – surprisingly problem-free. By then, the critical 90 days had passed. Both a new self-confidence and a more open perspective on what was truly necessary had settled in.
The heftiest debates, however, had to do with the silent rooms. We planners were blinded by initial defensive arguments that undisturbed, focused work would go out along with the personal desk. Back then we thought that now everyone on the team in search of peace and quiet would stream into silent rooms whose collective six working spaces would never suffice for a staff of 26.
With that argument in mind, we quickly came close to abandoning one of our key intentions. In order to face the anticipated hordes, we initially planned to prescribe a new routine to our staff. They would be asked to register for two-hour slots in the silent rooms well in advance and write them on a whiteboard by the door. Which of course no one does when spaces are permanently available.
Our hoped-for routine that everyone would change their seats every two hours is more or less followed by the staff. Like I've said: You can't prescribe routines! Routines that lack an obvious logical purpose have it the hardest. These, however, are also the easiest to simply abandon.
Why some left the company
Anyone who initiates change processes needs to be aware that their own feelings about change aren't everyone else's. Many of my colleagues in strategy- and innovation consulting love change. They view change as an end in itself because it is the springboard for transforming the world. "The path itself is the destination!" they say, without giving thought to the state of things at the starting and finish lines. They are driven by the firm confidence that, with a little common sense, every change can lead to an improvement. Psychologists call these individuals "sensation seekers." The group includes about 20% of the human race who, for genetic reasons, are only happy when they achieve high levels of stimulation. I'm the same way.
The thinking of the other 80% of humanity we hope to take along with us through change processes, however, is diametrically opposed to this. For them not change but stability is the most desirable goal. They keep the number of new stimuli low and feel more at home with the familiar then with departing for new horizons. These individuals do not consider change in itself a good thing, but rather a necessary evil in moving from Stable Situation A to Stable Situation B.
It is virtually impossible to get this majority of human beings excited about change processes. Because those who view stable circumstances as the ideal and are pushed into making change will subconsciously view this as a message that they had been doing something wrong. For 80% of us, change is a harsh criticism of our previous activity. This makes us either furious or insecure. Both reactions were easily observable during the changes at the 2b AHEAD ThinkTank.
Among other things, one result of the changes was that old departmental structures were no longer feasible and had to be eliminated. Corresponding operational adjustments - among top management as well - resulted.
There were also two assistants who left our team during the course of the process. This is another truth of change processes: They tend to polarize, bringing tensions from other areas to the surface. AND: They place a strain on the workforce. Those who feel particularly criticized through change will become more insecure. Those who are insecure make mistakes more often. Including unacceptable ones.
In retrospect I can no longer imagine our change processes happening without these resignations. If the process hadn't led to this result, then it wouldn't have been extensive enough. I am inclined to assert that change processes must necessarily leave to separations. The separations are important: Obviously this is true for the company that can thereby jettison old restraints. But also for the workers affected who would by no means have become happy with the company philosophy after the change process either, and who would very likely find another, more satisfying job. These separations, however, are most important for the staff who choose to remain. They are given the opportunity to depart from previous loyalty routines and to position themselves clearly for or against the change process.
Is there a prescription for change anxiety? Yes: Praise!
Leadership coaches will give you the answer like a pistol shot: "Combat insecurity with openness, consistency, and clarity in communication!" Obviously. This is certainly true. We also were sure to communicate the most important aspects of the change process openly, consistently, and with clarity. So much is obvious.
In my opinion, however, there is another, often underestimated strategy here that we implemented with great success: praise. This may sound silly to the efficiency-sensitive ears of managers, but what turned out to be the virtually frictionless success of our change process owes itself to a simple cardboard box: our "kudos box."
The box was introduced parallel to the change process. The concept is simple: Every staff member can write praise for anyone else. A bit of praise, a ton of praise, glowing praise ... all of which gets written on slips of paper spontaneously through the week and put in a box set in a central location. Thus between 20-30 kudos are gathered every week. On a set day each week, the box is emptied and the praises are drawn at random and read aloud in front of the whole team. One of those praised is drawn at random and receives a small present.
Of course it's not about the present for anyone. It's about feeling valued and valuable. Especially at times when some of us perceived the change process as criticism of their previous work. Even without management nudging them, our staff understood this immediately. The "kudos box" is a surefire success, carried every week by the employees themselves.
What is the result of change? What do the "changed" say?
I asked some of our team members from all levels to give their unvarnished interim conclusions about the change process. The responses were left unedited. If they've been touched up, then only by the authors' inner cosmeticians:
Michael Carl, Director of Studies & Analysis, full-time, 50% off-site
The new office concept proved to be a turbo boost to the development of a more cooperative and communicative corporate culture. It supports our pace. Currently we are seeing this very vividly with new staff. The concept makes cooperation possible between much larger numbers of people using less space. Our office would be too small for fixed spaces, even for cages! Knowledge about what others are working on has grown tremendously. This is the foundation for the next step, improved overall teamwork. That, however, will not happen automatically, but must be actively introduced. The requirements placed on staff are rising: self-organization, the ability to concentrate, stress resilience. Work performance has increased for many, but not for everyone. Our planning overlooked one need: Undisturbed conversation, bet it in a telephone interview, a personnel-related discussion, or the like. Currently we are using one of the silent rooms for this, but keep being confronted with the limitations there.
Robert Schnoeckel, then Manager of New Business, full-time, in-house
I was positive about the new office concept from the beginning, because I believed it had the potential to solve two problems. On the one hand, we had a shortage of space and with it an office atmosphere that was no longer allowing "normal" activities (e.g., telephoning, focused work, etc.). On the other hand, 2bA's rapid growth led to the formation of departments, and the first cases of exclusion began. For me, the new office concept represented a solution to both problems.
Not everyone on in the company believed in the change, however, so that the lunch breaks were a regular forum for heated debates about the merits and demerits of the idea. The main arguments of the opponents were the chaos that a daily "clearing" of the individual work spaces would mean, as well as the dispersal of the team across the entire office and the resulting diminished cooperation.
In my view, the new concept is better than a "normal" office, but has a few weaknesses of its own. On the positive side are the points that the division of rooms according to function actually does increase productivity in my opinion, as well as knowledge transfer between various areas. I believe that the weaknesses of the system mainly lie in the facilities. The office is still too small for what has become a much larger team. The furniture doesn't meet the standards of a modern workplace. In particular, options to adjust chairs and tables to individual body size are conspicuously absent.
I believe that the main tip here for other companies is that new office concepts need to be individually adapted to the company. Even during the development of the concept, it is important to have a clear idea or goal regarding what the new concept should actually achieve. Merely running after a trend to develop a workplace concept as an end in itself may quickly lead to the appearance of internal processes that no one ever wanted.
Maximilian Feifel, Consultant, full-time, usually off-site visiting customers
When I heard about it for the first time, I was relaxed and excited about the change. Some of my colleagues shared this excitement, others didn't. Skepticism prevailed among more or less the majority of my coworkers. After the initial acclimation phase, which actually took awhile for some colleagues, I believe that the atmosphere became more relaxed. The rooms feel less forced and more creative – they invite you to create.
It is actually the case that I like going in to the office more today than I did before. But while I do experience creative inspiration through the new approach, sometimes I find focused work difficult due to all the bustling activity – the silent rooms are sometimes occupied for too long by lone individuals. To a certain extent, work loses a bit of its formal touch, making it a more organic part of the day. In that regard, you can speak of a positive effect for work-life balance. The one negative point I'd like to mention is the slightly overdone nature of the decorations. Also, some staff members still tend to have their "regular" spots they rarely move from, which nevertheless doesn't detract from the overall positive impression here.
What can other companies learn from this? Similar concepts are worth implementing when the goal is a creative work environment. If the concept is put in practice consistently and without compromise, then employees will adapt in a matter of weeks. Get away from conventional thinking when it comes to configuring the workplace, and use it as an expression of corporate culture!
Johanna Katrynski, Project Manager - Future Congress, part-time, in-house
The first time I heard about it, I was happy that we would try something new. At the same time, I had lots of questions – Where would we put all of the stuff? – and thought there wouldn't necessarily be more room for everyone. Opinions were divided among my colleagues. Everyone was anxious to see how it would work, but only a few were completely against the idea.
The company changed during the course of the project. Personally, I feel more welcome because I don't end up taking anyone's seat. I work with a lot of different people and somehow you hear a lot more what's going on than when you only sit together with your team. The separation of the rooms by function is a good idea, but the communication room, for example, is usually occupied by one particular team and not used for making calls. It would have been better to have a larger number of smaller communication rooms, because the silent rooms are often misappropriated for that purpose as it is.
Other companies could definitely learn from our experience that this kind of process is extremely enriching, particularly for part-time staff. I'm not sure if it actually increases work efficiency, because sometimes you can't work very well outside of the silent rooms and it takes longer to set up a new spot with all of your things (laptop + mouse + headset + glass + bottle of water...).
Duc Chu, intern, full-time, in-house, joined the team after the change in culture
The first time I heard about office structures of the future, I immediately thought of flexible work spaces where no employee is assigned a fixed spot, but rather room occupancy changes according to the project situation of the company at a given time. Here I don't sit in the same chair for eight hours a day, which means I come into contact with coworkers from other parts of the company, and this in turn promotes solidarity among the staff. I can choose my own work space as long as it's not occupied by a coworker, and this gives me some space to organize my work. So far I haven't seen any drawbacks to the flexible office concept.
Thomas Kastell, then Assistant to the Directors, full-time, in-house, joined the team after the change in culture
First off, I view the work-space-free concept very positively. It actually does lead to a dissolution of department lines and to communication across sections that promotes team character and interpersonal exchange. In this regard, the functional division of rooms should be highlighted as a success, even if some rooms are hardly - or not at all - usable for more communicative staff members.
Still in need of improvement in my opinion is the use of modern IT and communications technologies with the aim of not only realizing the digital, but also the virtual office. In this light the paper-dependent process structures in the finance and sales areas show room for innovation.
What tips can we give you for your working environment?
Before I forget: The objective shortage of work spaces instantly disappeared with the implementation of the co-working space. This is the good news for efficiency-minded innovators: Considerably more people can work in offices with no fixed work spaces. They can work faster! And better! More joyfully!
The number of work spaces, however, is only the pretext for my recommendation that every company abolish the personal desk. Far more valuable is watching team members previously considered sluggish having a dynamic conversation with others, or how agilely teams are formed, organize themselves, and help each other. "Employees" become "independent thinkers" through the change process. Above all the speed of thinking and working increases; even our super-agile external consultants no longer seem out of place in our institute.
If you are interested in the concept of the co-working space and are planning to restructure your office space yourself, then feel free to drop in to visit us for some inspiration.
What tips can we give you for your change processes?
Even if rearranging your office space isn't on the agenda, it's worth drawing a few tips we learned during our change process:
The main question involved is how company leadership can manage causing their staff to forget old routines and to seek new ones with an open attitude. "Learning to unlearn" is one of the most important elements in our courses for training managers to become "2b AHEAD innovation managers." The principle trains precisely this ability. Paul Watzlawick once said: "If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail." The problem isn't the nail. The problem is the faith your staff places in the hammer.
The strategy involved here is an engineered change in environment. It can be summarized in two sentences: "Take from me the possibility of continuing to fol-low my old routines. But leave me with the opportunity to find new ones myself!"
First of all, break the associations your staff have with a certain concept, object, or location. Be consistent. Avoid any form of compromise. Force your employees "overnight" into a novel situation where the old routines are simply impossible. Endure the natural turbulence for roughly 60-90 days. After this, new routines will have become firmly established.
And don't forget: The most effective strategy against uncertainty is praise