Dealing with Culture Fires

In my previous post, “Bad Culture is Like a Forest Fire” I talked about many of the destructive and behavioral similarities between the two. Now like any forest fire some culture fires are left to burn, some are put out quickly, and some are left to smolder for years, but ultimately, everyone has an interest in them being extinguished eventually. There are two questions here: 1) How do you put out a fire once it starts?; and, 2) How do you prevent a fire in the first place?

Let’s tackle the harder issue first…how can you put out a culture fire?

First, let me identify some of the challenges people and organizations face when dealing with culture fires. The first issue is cognitive – people need to realize the need and logical reasons for change. The second issue is resource allocation – to fight a “fire” resources will need to be moved from one aspect of a company to the front lines. The challenge here is often the “line of sight” to change. For example, it is very easy to see and measure the progress of creating a new product; it is harder to see and measure a cultural change. So many times, resources are not allocated for long. Tip: find your leading metrics and your milestones (like attrition, employee engagement scores, employee referrals, etc.) Once you know how to track your progress and you have a baseline set, it’s time to start fighting the fire.


Scenario #1: The fire is blazing hot and destroying the company

The first method for fighting a big blaze is dropping a group of outside resources into the fire to fight it. Wildfire crews across the continent tasked with fighting large forest blazes are known as “hotshot” crews. They are usually very skilled, have high stamina, and are placed with awesome resources and strategy to help them fight the fires. In the business world, these turn into consultants. These cultural interventions are usually quick, intensely fought by a coordinated group of people who have great control over the resources and strategy, very costly, and provide little in terms of reparation or sustainability. They are simply there to put out the fire. Large consulting groups are often hired for large culture fires and many are seen setting up “camp” in client offices and are often given priority in meetings. They are brief (usually less than 6 months) and they are expensive. For that reason, it is a rare occasion that a company will engage such “hotshot crews.” The ones that do are typically pressured by a board of directors or shareholders.

When you reach this point, the solution is rarely elegant, rarely cheap, and rarely has a fully positive outcome. It scars the landscape, sometimes irreparably. If noting else, the “erosion” a destabilization of the organization’s foundation can last for a good year or two before things start to regrow.

Springs wildfire rages

The second and probably most common but least effective method is using an internal position to fight the culture fire. Sometimes this method is a small group of employees or team being tasked with cultural change. And while this group is usually very dedicated and in many respects, adequately trained, when a fire reaches a certain magnitude, this cadre of culture evangelists just doesn’t have the resources or necessary influence. Imagine a group of homeowners with garden hoses against a large fire. While this solution is inexpensive, it is rarely effective against large culture problems – they just do not have the resources, influence, or objective authority to do what is truly necessary to put of the fire. While internal fire-fighters may slow the advance of bad culture in some cases. It is usually exhausting and the people tasked with cultural change often “retire” while the fire is still destroying other parts of the company.

One large aspect of why these brave souls could fail is the inability or unwillingness to remove large, old, unhealthy trees (well established senior-level individuals who are either contributing to the problems or resisting positive change.)  If you are a cultural change Manager and some of the people who are throwing gasoline on the fire live at higher levels than you (Director, VP, and up) you simply do not have the ability to affect change. You’re best bet is to protect your little patch of land and keep the fire from burning down your own house…saving the company or your neighbors’ houses becomes a battle you just can’t win. I have yet to see or hear about a substantial cultural change that has been successful from the inside (unless this person reports to the board of directors).  If you know of one, let me know.

Scenario #2: the forest is dry but no fire

This is the norm for many companies. It can occur at any stage of maturity, sometimes companies are well established and sometimes they are younger. In either case, cultural management has taken a backseat to everything else in the company. There is an assumption that if you don’t see smoke, then all is well. At this point, you don’t need “firefighters”; at least not to put out a fire. However, where they can come in handy is to identify your areas of greatest risk or where the start of a cultural problems could be likely or could be very hard to fight if it did start.

Here is where internal cultural managers have a chance to do some good. This is the land of management and leadership training. Where you are doing everything to help prevent the start of a fire. Teaching expectation setting, feedback, and basic leadership skills. Encouraging transparency, dialogue, and healthy conflict. The goal of which is to help the organization keep an eye on its own backyard, contain the little problems, and put them out quickly. The message being “only You, can prevent culture fires.”

And at this point, it’s true. The company is usually too big at this point for a select group of people to handle all the issues that pop up, so you do your best to give a variety of people basic skills to handle them with little support.

Scenario #3: no fire, healthy forest

This is the utopia that most people dream of. And many people think unattainable. But there are companies out there that do this very well. It may seem as though it can happen naturally but nearly every great company culture exists because of clear focus on cultural health. Think of Zappos, Google, Boston Consulting Group, and other top companies to work for. These companies built their reputations as great places to work with a clear and executive focus on culture. Some companies, like Google, have even created positions to that report directly to the CEO called “Chief Culture Officer”. Their job is to watch for the insidious creep of “inappropriate behavior or inhibition of change” that Kotter & Heskett say can form over a number of years, eventually resulting in a bad culture – a forest just waiting for a spark.

Being “healthy” is not the same as “not sick.”

When a culture is dry and ready for a spark, it may not have a fire burning yet, but I would not call it “healthy.” Healthy cultures, healthy forests, and healthy people are all dedicated in some way to staying fit. Organizational health is not an accident. And health or lack thereof can happen at any point in a companies lifespan, just like people. I’ve seen many 60 year olds that are in better shape than 20-somethings. Which means bad habits, bad management, and bad planning can create an unhealthy company culture at any point.

Rebuilding health.

The first step to any change is awareness. If you are not aware or willing to see that your culture is unhealthy, improvement will never come. The next biggest hurdle is for senior leadership (and it is a big one.)  Once they recognize that the organization they lead has an unhealthy culture, they then have to admit that they are large contributors to its current state. It takes a great deal of humility for leaders to admit they are part of the problem and show a dedication to change, not just in words, but in action.

So if you notice your forest is burning ask yourself, do you really have the right kind of resources engaged to fight it or do you have a bunch of people with garden hoses simply defending their own space? If you don’t have a fire but want to protect the organization from going up at the first spark, are you focused on maintaining the health of your culture? Are you identifying your danger spots and fixing them or do you just have your fingers crossed and hoping for rain? If your culture is healthy, who is keeping it that way, are the checks an balances built into the culture? Do you have a person whose job is to manager the culture and ensure organizational health and sustainability? How do you know that healthy culture will still be there in 2 years, 5 years?

Health is not an accident

Healthy cultures are not accidents. And though some may think it too “touchy feely” to be relevant or warrant attention. Research from Kotter & Heskett, Daniel Goleman, Stephen M. R. Covey, and many others demonstrate that companies with healthy culture vastly outperform those with unhealthy ones. Every company is in business to generate revenue. How much of that are you spending simply trying to put out all the fires when they pop up. Wouldn’t it be better if your organization was better at planting and managing a better forest? Who job is that? After all, if you’re not focusing on your organizations health, who is?


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