Case Studies in Cultures that Advance Change

Posted by Tina Schuelke Tina Schuelke
By Laura Dowdy, Change Management Specialist

Creating the right kind of culture can be key to creating a thriving, agile, and profitable workplace. As people reach new heights and stretch themselves as individuals, they do the same in their work life.  Reaching and stretching requires change.  These changes create a workforce that is more agile and productive in times of change and therefore more profitable to the company.

How does an organization go about creating this kind of environment?  One of the key elements is TRUST- trusting your employees with leadership roles, tasks and projects that might be just beyond their current skill set and creating an environment where your employees can trust coworkers and superiors enough to reveal their shortcomings.  

The April 2014 Harvard Business Review looked at 2 different companies successfully creating this kind of environment, what the HBR calls “deliberately developmental organizations” (DOO’s for short): Bridgewater Associates (an east coast investment firm) and Decurion Corporation (a west coast company that owns and manages real estate). Here we will look at some of the ways these companies help create that type of culture.

At Bridgewater, when business decisions fail, they look beyond root cause analysis to the individual’s personal traits that led to the poor decision.  As a group, they work to find the problem and allow the individual to use it as a growing moment.  This kind of environment can be uncomfortable in the beginning, for obvious reasons, and requires there be no judgment to be effective. This company also implements an issues log where employees write down mistakes or things that went wrong. Again, this is used as a learning tool and NOT a tool for meting out penalties.

Decurion, also puts problems out in the open by utilizing a “fish bowl” technique.  If a program or project is not going well, several people involved sit inside a circle of the rest of their colleagues to discuss the issues and problems they are having.  The wider group of colleagues listen and add to the discussion. This process, facilitated by a senior manager, allows problems in communication and work flow to be discovered and addressed in a safe, nonjudgmental environment.

Both of these organizations are large businesses, and their methods may seem more intense than what most companies will want to take on. However, a culture of trust and personal development can be achieved in a small business with less uncomfortable methods.  A great example is Nick’s Pizza and Pub in Crystal Lake, IL.  By trusting his teenage dishwashers enough to treat them as genuine leaders and giving his employees meaningful, intentional feedback, Nick Sarillo was able to reduce turnover at his company to 20% in an industry with an average of 200% turnover.  This not only reduces the costs of continually hiring new employees but increases the quality of the employees he has.

Creating cultures that advance change within a company can be scary for both employee and employer, given the high levels of trust required on both sides, but when done effectively it can lead to great rewards for everyone.  In addition, when you have already built up this level of trust, managing change, when it inevitably occurs in the ever evolving workplace, will be that much easier.

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