Voice Over - Wherein Toast Debunks Big Bang Theory

Continuing from the lessons learnt from past attempts to change culture <link>, let’s talk about The Perils of the Big Bang. The drive to create an event driven Big Bang change programme is absolutely derivative of the executive focus and time horizon challenges described last week. If you fear that you’ll lose funding and/or sponsorship and you’re driven to get people unstuck from their bad old ways, it is highly tempting to LAUNCH a culture change programme.

What does that look like? A launch has graphics and videos, leader speeches, pages on the intranet, desk drops, brochureware, morning teas. It involves kick offs and collaboration sessions, comms cascades and training sessions and workshops. And so on and so forth ad nauseum. By the end of the first few weeks, everyone in the company can probably reel off the key message(s) whether it be a new purpose statement, organisation values, or core leadership behaviours. It involves a lot of money spent both directly on the ‘deliverables’ and indirectly on the opportunity cost of people’s time, attention, and productivity.

It is not that the Big Bang is utterly pointless, but unfortunately what it all feels like to me is a New Year’s Resolution. We know how this works. You set yourself a New Year Resolution to exercise more. Download the exercise apps, put a calendar reminder on your phone, and off you go. But study after study demonstrates that a minimum of 80% of all hung over but resolved commitments made on 1 January are gone by February. Most studies actually put the failure rate well into the 90s. The value of eating better or exercising isn’t utterly lost. You may have done it for several weeks. You may even have lost a bit. What you haven’t accomplished, however, is to change your baseline. You are still exactly who you were when you made the decision to change… only now you’re a #failure at this particular type of change. This is what an organisational cultural launch does. By itself, it doesn’t change anything fundamental about the shared values, norms, or attitudes of the majority of your people.

Now a big event-based cultural change approach isn’t entirely useless and can provide a few benefits. First, it can serve as a form of virtue signalling by selecting that value, behaviour or norm above all others the leadership team has elected to elevate. Like your choice between learning a language, eating better or losing weight, the specific choice of a resolution does matter. It establishes your aspirational priority.

Second, a Big Bang can if correctly constructed create a cultural commitment device. Let’s go back to our New Year Resolution. One of the most consistently recommended ways to stick to your resolution is to enlist help or establish a reward structure that incentives compliance with the goal. If you announce your intention to lose weight to all your peers at work, you’re more likely to stick with it. If you collaborate on goal setting with peers, there is an even higher probability of success. An organisation that invests in a very big launch of a new reward and recognition programme, purpose statement, value norms is not just saying ‘This is what we want’, it’s also very publicly and transparently saying, “Grade me by this new standard.”

Finally, you can use your Big Bang to introduce social and monetary commitment devices. Last time, let’s revisit your annual commitment to exercise more. If you really want to make yourself exercise regularly every week, tell everyone that you are going to donate $20 every week to a charity that you absolutely loathe when you fail to do so. Put someone else in charge of evaluating your compliance. Every morning you will look at those gym shoes and your muppet self says, “I don’t want to exercise." Then your smart, past self will say, “But I really super don’t want to give money to those assholes so... Me... Put on the damn shoes.” A Big Bang cultural launch that includes the introduction of a new enterprise balanced score card measure, change in bonus metrics, promotion, reward and recognition changes, and other tangible commitment devices is far likelier to have sustainability and longevity.

Recommendation: Use the inevitable executive impulse to “launch” your organisational culture change as a tactical opportunity to implement commitment devices that will remain long after your project team is disbanded.

“If you want to change the culture, you will have to start by changing the organisation.” ~ Mary Douglas