Shhh…a Nod to Quiet Discipline

The change management literature and business press are infatuated with terms such as Radical, Transformational, Revolutionary, Break-through and Seismic. We love the story of seemingly miraculous business turnarounds. One might think that most organizations and leaders are simply sleep-walking through the daily grind until that seismic event occurs spurring everyone to action and unimaginable business success.

In the book ‘Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations’ our founder and several colleagues share a number of case studies that describe the cultural change efforts of organizations from different industries from across the globe. The cases remind me of a point that Jim Collins raised in his book ‘Good to Great’ – the notion of quiet discipline. If you’re looking for that one moment in time or that one critical event that resulted in a radical change that led to immediate and sustained high-performance, you probably won’t find it.

Transforming culture, one day at a time.

My career now spans 35 years. I spent the first half of my career working in organizations of various sizes and industries. I’ve spent the second half of my career consulting to organizations with a focus on culture and leadership. Yes I have witnessed moments where a leader had a profound breakthrough in his or her thinking about the business or about themselves as a leader. I’ve seen organizations and teams make a collective commitment to changing their situation and seeing that commitment through, ultimately having very real impact on everyone involved.

Yet for every profound moment I can recall there have been hundreds, maybe thousands of incremental steps and actions that, over time have resulted in significant changes and performance improvements. People always want us to tell the story of the cultural revelation and radical change that resulted in a sudden leap in business performance. It is understandable. Such stories offer hope and inspiration when facing what can seem like a daunting task…changing the culture of an organization. They want the organizational version of the Christmas Carol in which the miser Ebenezer Scrooge is miraculously transformed overnight into a kinder, generous soul.

Hard work and quiet discipline.

If you think about most success stories, whether they be about an individual or a group, they are rich with periods of creativity, doubt, luck, setbacks and perseverance. Most of all, there is an abundance of good old-fashioned hard work. At Denison, we have witnessed it first hand in companies that many never hear about. They are insurers, researchers, hotels, power companies, manufacturers, government agencies and healthcare providers. They are local, national and global. But if you are lucky enough to work for, or to be a customer of those organizations, the impact of their culture is very real. They have approached their culture work with that quiet discipline that Collins wrote about.

We encourage our clients who embark on their culture journeys to think of the effort as multi-dimensional and systemic. Culture is not a ‘thing’. It is the sum of many parts. The question often is asked, ‘how long does it take to change the culture?’ Since culture is the result of many actions and behaviors, the good news is that many aspects of the culture can be targeted and changed relatively quickly which, over time, changes culture.

Culture change should be approached in a deliberate and systemic manner. It requires both a desire to be more effective and perseverance to see it through. To quote from Dan Denison’s book regarding culture change, “It is humbling to contemplate the scale and scope of the challenge, but inspiring to see what can be accomplished once things get started.” We offer a nod to those whose quiet discipline has created high performing organizations with little fanfare or notoriety, yet with the satisfaction of knowing that they are working in ways that are having real impact on those they employ as well as those who benefit from their products and services.

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