By Graham Oxley, Project Manager – Digital Engagement
The manager of Manchester United is not someone that people would often look to when researching culture change. However, the remarkable turnaround in fortunes at the club since new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer joined on the 19th December 2018 is worth investigating. When you look closely, you can see the hallmarks of successful culture change that can be applied to any business, from football team to multi-national corporation as I intend to show. This is particularly exciting to me because it allows me to see a connection between my favourite hobby and my daily work in helping businesses enact effective culture transformations.
Solskjaer has not had lots of time in the job, but he has unwittingly (or not?) taken a number of the same steps that we recommend to organisations looking to transform the culture:
1. Engage your influencers – People naturally want to reduce their cognitive dissonance and this means that in teams and organisations, employees adopt the behaviours of those people who have reference power[i]. These people are your influencers, and if you can engage them in adopting the behaviours you seek, this can naturally filter through the organisation. Paul Pogba is one of the most influential men in the Manchester United squad, which is why in pursuit of a culture of attacking football, Solskjaer has focussed on encouraging his star player to play more positively and watched this rub off on the rest of the squad.
2. Focus on micro-behaviours – Micro-behaviours are defined as small, thoughtless acts that can act in dissonance with a culture. For example, speaking over a junior colleague in a meeting is a small act, but may be in counter to an organisation’s intended culture of respect and collaboration. Calling out these negative micro-behaviours can help continually reinforce the organisation’s culture in employees’ minds until it becomes unconscious. Solskjaer has identified a respect for the club as something that he wants to foster in the culture and focussed on micro-behaviours such as asking all players to wear matching Manchester United branded jackets when arriving at the games to show unity, as opposed to wearing whatever they wanted previously[ii].
3. Fostering a culture of positivity – Positivity can have a significant impact on creativity, which can be explained by neuroscience. The neocortex and limbic system, seats of rational thought and emotions, work together to produce creativity, which means to be creative, you need both to be stimulated and feel safe.[iii] A lot of culture change initiatives in organisations focus on the rational or intellectual appeal for employees, however it is important to maintain a focus on the emotional elements to ensure that employees are feeling positive and therefore unleash creativity. Solskjaer knew that creativity was a big part of the culture he wanted to embed, so has focussed heavily on positivity in his messages both externally and internally, which was a stark contrast to the previous culture described by some as ‘fear and hate’[iv].
We frequently talk to clients about the importance of each of the above when it comes to enacting successful cultural change and it is interesting to see some real-life examples coming from an unexpected source. One word of caution however; immediate change is highly unlikely in a large multi-national organisation. Changing the culture in a 25-man football squad is a much smaller task, and even Solskjaer himself has admitted that ‘we are still very much a work in progress’[v]. However, he has adopted some key principles that are the key to cultural change no matter what the size of organisation and perhaps there is a lesson there for anyone enacting their programme of transformation.
Here at HSM, we help clients leverage the power of crowd-sourcing to make evidence-based decisions around delivering effective culture change. If you want to discuss this further, or are a football fan, drop me an email on email@example.com and I am happy to have a more in-depth chat.
[i] Shu, L. Gino, F. Bazerman, M H., (2011) Ethical Discrepancy : Changing Our Attitudes to Resolve Moral Dissonance, Behavioral Business Ethics: Ideas on an Emerging Field. Taylor and Francis Publishing
[iii] Dietrich, A. (2015). How creativity happens in the brain. Springer. Chicago
Innovation is a strategic priority for the majority of my clients. However, while organisations are focussed on innovation agendas and projects, many fail to prioritise enabling the people in their organisation to think innovatively. This is an error. Innovative thought is energy intensive, time-consuming and requires us to use a different part of our brains than operational work.
I explored this challenge recently, when invited to judge the ideas coming out of a Hackathon on a Leadership Programme at Chubb, the Insurance Company, run by their decidedly innovative VP of Talent & Development, Terry Jones. Watching the participants come together to innovate around pressing challenges at the organisation and the insurance sector more broadly, it was fascinating to see their journey from the usual corporate stance of operational short-term thinking, to arriving at out-of-the-box, truly creative solutions.
This led me think more deeply about why it is that Hackathons are so effective at generating innovative thought:
1. Hackathons generate lots of ideas: Researcher Dean Keith Simonton of UC-Davis provides strong evidence from multiple studies that creativity results from generating lots of ideas. In every occupation Simonton studied, from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, the story is the same: Creativity is a function of the quantity of ideas produced.
2. Hackathons make time for the work that matters: Research by Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurialism at London Business School indicates that knowledge workers spend an average of 41% on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction. In a similar vein, the well-established Pareto Principle dictates that 80% of production comes from 20% of efforts. In this context, how can organisations make time for the work that matters, freeing up a significant portion of the day for incubation? At Chubb, the Leadership Programme Hackathon appeared to successfully achieve this.
3. The Chubb Hackathon encouraged curiosity in their leaders: Research indicates that successful leadership is less about having all the answers, and more about wondering and questioning. A curious, inquisitive leader also sets an example that inspires creative thinking throughout the company. According to research by Hal Gregerson, Jeffrey Dyer and Clayton Christensen, there are five ‘discovery skills’ that enable curiosity in leaders: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. Their research found that innovative leaders spend 50% more time on these discovery activities than do CEOs with no track record for innovation.[i]
What are you doing to encourage the vital capability of innovative thought at your organisation? I’d love to hear from you. And if you want to learn more about stimulating innovative thought at your organisation, get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 For those of you not in the know, Hackathons are creative problem-solving events. They can involve technology and code, or simply be a group of people in a room together trying to solve a challenge
[i] Dyer, J., Gregerson, H., & Christensen, C. (2013). The Innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Press. Chicago