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A Navy SEAL’s 7 Steps for Using Culture to Drive Change

Leading significant organizational change is hard. Though well-intentioned, that’s why over half of major transformation efforts fail. Why? Many reasons can include but aren’t limited to a bad strategy, a weak culture lacking trust and accountability, poor communication, low levels of buy-in, change fatigue and competing priorities. But one area where many company leaders fail regularly is learning how to leverage the company culture to drive change.

As a former Navy SEAL, I can assure you that the post 9-11 Naval Special Warfare community has experienced constant change. Similarly, having led my own companies through fairly major changes – combined with thorough research – I have developed a model for Culture Driven Transformation (CDT). What does that mean? It is a strategy for analyzing and leveraging the positive aspects of an organization’s culture and using those elements to drive change. It also involves shoring up the weak aspects of the culture and simultaneously fixing the broken parts – changing the culture. A more nimble and adaptive organization is better suited for successfully navigating the murky waters of change. But it often requires a major change in the mindsets and behaviors of the leaders – and quite frankly, the entire company.

The first step in my CDT model is to Perform a Culture Diagnostic.

Before every mission you perform in the SEAL Teams, gathering as much valuable intelligence is critical for understanding what you will be dealing with and how you plan the mission. What details can we learn about the Area of Operation (AO)? Who lives there? How many enemy fighters can we expect on target? How many non-combatants? What weapons do they have? Will they have a QRF (quick reaction force) nearby? What resources and assets will we have at our disposal? The more information the better, especially when you know some of the intelligence may be flawed.

When you have a thorough understanding of the landscape, resources and tools at your disposal, you’re in the best position to make better decisions.

For example, you can use a combination of anonymous surveys, interviews and open forums both at specific levels within the company and company-wide to get some of the answers you’re looking for. These surveys can be customized to gather information in key areas, but you should always leave room for general comments and feedback. I have found this to be where the best and most specific information comes from.

Whatever the results, the data should be used to make the best possible decisions about how culture will fuel change efforts and what parts of the culture should simultaneously be improved.

The second step in the CDT model is to Match Strategy with Culture.

A company where the culture isn’t aligned with its strategy, especially during transformation, is doomed to failure. Culture trumps strategy every time. Great companies have a clearly defined culture that is supported by mindsets and experiences designed to support specific goals. They reinforce the important culture traits through both formal and informal systems.

The SEAL Teams embody a culture of teamwork, innovation and a never-quit attitude. This aligns perfectly with our strategy and vision of maintaining our status as the most elite war-fighters in the world. Everything we do, every experience, every lesson, supports these beliefs. If an organization has a goal of delivering great products and services while being one of the highest-rated work environments in their industry, every strategy, communication and decision must align with that goal.

The third step in the CDT model is to Define Behaviors and Mindsets That Drive Results.

Studies show that only 10% of people who have heart bypass surgery actually make significant changes to their diet and overall wellness. Why? Because change is hard and most people stay away from it if they can. This applies to most organizations as well. Ever when faced with overwhelming evidence that major changes are needed, most companies are slow to take action and lack the sense of urgency required to get things done.

The questions must be asked. “If we have the kind of culture we aspire to – a culture aligned with our strategy – what would the new behaviors be that we need to embody? Which ones would be eliminated?”

In the SEAL Teams or any business organization, culture is all about the beliefs, behaviors and actions of those on the team. If you want to use the strongest aspects of the current culture as a jumping off point, you have to be able to identify which ones are prime movers–the ones that will lead change.

When a company is going through a transformation, there will obviously be behaviors that need to continue, change or stop. If you’re facing a crisis–or even if you’re just enthusiastic about fixing some stuff–sometimes the natural response is to tear everything down and change it all. That’s a mistake. In BUD/s (SEAL training) you quickly learn to “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” If you focus on all of the difficult evolutions you have to pass before graduation, you’ll lose your mind. Picking just a few key behavior changes to make at a time helps fend off change fatigue and lets the team focus on a few main initiatives. When you give a blizzard of directives and initiatives, it dilutes the message, stresses the team out and makes it way more likely that nothing gets changed.

The fourth critical step in the CDT model is about Inspiring a Connection to the Cause.

When you’re changing things about your organization, the goal is to create a positive outcome, right? Improving speed, efficiency, quality, culture, internal and external communication. So communicating what the change is about, why it’s necessary, what the positive outcomes will be and what everyone’s role is in affecting the change isn’t optional. It’s a crucial part of the process, and something that needs to be done repeatedly from start to finish. You won’t connect your team to the cause if they don’t know the five W’s (who-what-when-where-why).

Through this process of explanation and connection, you prime the team to want to follow you into battle. To the win. Which means you need to define the win. Repeatedly. It’s the leader’s job to set the goal posts, so the team can begin to develop a plan for how they will accomplish the mission. It fosters collaboration, motivation and connection.

The fifth step is to Assign Change Agents.

Real change is led from the top, but it will only work if the vision and primary strategic initiatives touch every part of the business–and involve everybody from the boardroom to the front line. Not everybody will see the vision or agree with the strategy–especially if they feel like their input either wasn’t solicited or was ignored.

Even those who buy in and understand the goals often need guidance to make sure their energetic efforts aren’t aimed in the wrong place! Authoritarian, micro-managing leaders like to think they can lay down the law and everybody will fall in line–and that they can keep eyes on the entire team. That’s a recipe for disaster. You can’t make too many generalizations about the workforce as a whole, but one you can make is that workers who were born in the 1980s and 1990s can’t be managed like their older counterparts. They want to be led in a different way, and you have to groom that buy-in. If you don’t, you’ll get distrustful team members who tune out the message.

Any successful transformation effort needs trusted and respected team members “evangelizing” the vision and strategy through the ranks. The best Change Agents don’t just help make the mission work on their own. They recruit other evangelists to join the cause.

It would be nice to think that all of this goodness and solidarity spreads organically, without any specific effort. But it does take effort–diligent effort. In the companies that I’ve started, I created transformation task forces whose specific responsibility was to promote the horizontal sharing of information–peer to peer, not down from the mountaintop, so to speak. This type of guiding coalition should be made up of well-respected team members from different levels within the company and with different areas of expertise. A cross-functional team whose core function is to help lead the transformation by leveraging the positive aspects of the company culture.

The sixth steps of the CDT model is Telling Purposeful Stories.

People are social animals. They respond when they can identify with what they see and hear. If you’re trying to transform your organization, the best thing you can do is tell the success stories of the people who are doing it well. If certain team members have embraced the changes and are showing great results, celebrate them. If you’re still early in the process, find another organization that went through a similar transformation successfully and tell their story.

These stories help connect the team on an emotional level, and gives each team member a way to visualize what success looks like. In later chapters we will talk more about how storytelling plays an impactful role in communicating quick wins that keep the team energized, combats change fatigue, keeps them connected to the long-term vision and brings the naysayers on board.

Telling Purposeful Stories shouldn’t just happen in a monthly or quarterly company-wide meeting. Leaders, managers and members of the transformation task force should find opportunities every day to weave in stories about transformation progress being made. And it isn’t always about happy talk. Communicate the good with the bad.

For example: “Hey, did you hear that we exceeded our goal timeline for the selection of the new software by six weeks? This puts us way ahead of the implementation time table! Here’s what happened…”

You also want to maintain a sense of urgency by not always keeping it all about the positive stuff.

For example: “We did achieve our goal of being up 5% year-over-year which is awesome, but we are still losing market share to our main competitor. Let’s keep at it.”

Telling Purposeful Stories is easy and should be done with a purpose for delivering aligned communication throughout the entire organization.

The seventh and most important aspect of the model is to Measure and Monitor the Cultural Evolution.

As in anything in business, you get what you measure. If it’s important, measure it. And therein lies the problem. Many senior leadership teams deprioritize culture and its impact on driving results, so they don’t monitor or measure it in any significant way. If you are trying to evolve a culture and redesign it to fit a strategy for change, then you better find ways to measure progress. Measurement should focus on four key areas:

Business Performance. Are the key performance indicators we defined being reached? Are the cultural improvements helping increase sales, retention and efficiencies? Can we clearly see that new behaviors are aligning with measurable results? Any culture improvement strategies have to be designed to meet business objectives, otherwise they are pointless.

Key Behaviors. Of the key behaviors we have decided to focus on, how many people in important positions are exhibiting those behaviors on a regular basis? For example, if improving customer satisfaction is a goal and communication is a key element to achieving this, how many account executives have changed the rhythm, frequency and style of their customer interaction? What has the result been?

Underlying Beliefs and Mindsets. Are the new cultural attitudes progressing? Are things moving in the right direction? These will be harder to clearly measure but possible to achieve through surveys, interviews and good old fashion observation.

When used properly, culture can be the chief enabler and prime mover for leading change. Transformation – whether it be a full re-engineering of a business or something smaller – is hard. It takes longer and costs more than you think at the beginning. Using the positive aspects of the culture will ease the pain and stress, and can even make it an exciting process!

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