Culture Needs a Playbook

Start with Why

An entrepreneurial mindset longs for a culture that challenges the status quo, takes risks, empowers, experiments, innovates and collaborates. To achieve this, we first need to understand that there is no universal good or bad culture.

Arlene Pietranton, CEO of the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA), notes that every organization has a culture — by default or by design. If you start with the why before the what, it becomes a culture by design and can take you where you want to go.

“You should choose your culture based on what makes your organization successful,” says Jamie Notter, a culture consultant, author, and speaker who joined us for the ACE conversation. Culture is essentially “values that drive behaviors” he says. If you have behaviors that are not producing success — that are causing you to fall behind — you’ve got a culture issue. If you’re getting results (for which you need to track the data), your culture is aligned.

Define the How

Culture is a collective agreement about values and is the responsibility of everyone in the organization, according to Pietranton. Notter explains that culture lives in the words, actions, thoughts, and assumptions in your organization. When you put it all together, it becomes clear what is valued and what is not.

Notter emphasizes that culture and strategy are two sides of the same coin. An awesome culture won’t defeat a bad strategy and vice versa. In addition, the environment — internal and external — plays a big part, points out Pietranton. You could have a great culture and strategy but if your timing is off, and you are not responsive to the needs around you, you won’t get results.

Culture can’t be changed by dreaming about what you want, or by whining about what you have. Notter is loud and clear that you need to “do something to move the needle.” You need a defined structure, system, and processes to get to your desired culture. In essence, you need a playbook. That playbook must continuously evolve with new plays.

The playbook can consist of big and small plays, and span all the elements that drive your organizational culture, explains Notter. Pietranton noted that ASHA underwent a cultural makeover that began two decades ago and continues to evolve. She described some of the plays that have resulted in wins or yielded valuable lessons over the years.

1. The People Play

Arlene Pietranton, CEO of the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA), has fostered a culture of innovation at ASHA with a shared leadership model. Instead of the infamous stacked organizational chart common to most associations, ASHA has a circular structure with a facilitating team at the center with spokes radiating out to functional areas.

Along with the facilitating team, ASHA developed Characteristics of the Desired Organizational Culture. These are more than the typical core values that make for good wall art in the lunchroom and on the Intranet. These characteristics define how people relate and are held accountable to one another, and are central to the culture playbook.

Pietranton also attributes ASHA’s success with the people play to their system of 360 feedback, which works with ASHA’s large staff of 300. It encourages radical candor without fear of retribution. Jamie Notter, culture consultant, author, and speaker, points out that 360s require transparency (never do it anonymously!). And this type of feedback works best when solicited over lunch with your harshest critics, not your friends.

2. The Process Play

There isn’t much difference between associations and for-profits when it comes to culture, according to Notter. Whether it’s an association with a staff of 12 or a global tech company employing 70k people, the common complaint is, “we can’t afford what it takes to change the culture.” Culture won’t change if you don’t carve out time and resources and define the process.

Remember when Google enforced 20 percent time? One day a week for everyone to stop and ideate — what a waste! Yet, that’s where Gmail came from.

Process starts with clear communication. You can’t just hand down a mandate to change the culture. “People don’t resist change, they resist what they don’t understand,” says Notter. You’ve got to present a clear picture of the desired culture and how everyone is going to get there. He suggests you approach the process play by play to avoid overwhelming people.

The biggest challenge ASHA faced with the cultural makeover was becoming comfortable with ambiguity, risk taking and getting clarity on operationalizing ideas, says Pietranton. Creating the process play helped.

The association focused on building organizational capacity for innovation. Project management and process improvement were priorities. Pietranton and her team shared the mindset of “plussing up” by continuously asking “How can we make it better?” They facilitated disciplined risk-taking and treated failures as lessons learned.

Today, the CEO has the discretion to fund pilots with a new initiatives fund, while the board manages a special opportunities fund. “We like pilots that get to a minimum viable product quickly,” says Pietranton.

Notter recommends “sandboxing” as a play to address the people and process issues that come up during culture change. Play in the sandbox within your own sphere of influence — and put up walls so your sand does not spill over and threaten others. Then experiment within the boundaries of your sandbox, and show your dissenters what you can do.

Sandboxing is especially useful when you don’t have appetite or buy-in from the top for change and innovation. If you fret that the boss doesn’t get it, remember it’s their butt on the line. So you’ve got to make the case, and show results.

“Proceed until apprehended,” is Notter’s motto for being the change agent you want to be. And if you have some quick results to share before you’re apprehended, you’ll get away with it. Innovation should be disciplined, not rampant.

Mariah Burton Nelson, VP, Innovation and Planning at ASAE, recounts how younger staff told her they wanted to contribute to innovation. Nelson got the CEO on board and started Idea Gen, a group open to everyone below the executive level. More than half of eligible staff have joined the group and come up with ideas that they develop and present to management, Shark Tank-style. Many of the ideas have seen the light of day and the group is evolving in exciting ways.

3. The Relationships Play

Culture is a product of many relationships — of people to programs, and of people to their peers and superiors. Plus, in associations, we have the exclusive factor of staff relationships to members — volunteers, key influencers, and the larger universe of members.

Often, these relationships come in the way of change and business decisions. Putting emotion over data slows things down.  “They don’t want to let it go,” is a common refrain in the association world. Long-time staff and the inner circle of members want to hold on to legacy programs to which they feel emotionally attached, lamented several ACErs. On the flip side, some may want to pursue the latest shiny object with no strategic consideration whatsoever.

Of course, you have to counter this emotional bias with the business case. You have to provide data about why these programs may be making losses and becoming irrelevant. When you get ready to launch a new program, start with a business plan. Build expectations and reviews from the get-go, including laying down when or why you may need to sunset a program.

Even so, you can’t ignore the emotional quotient. Pietranton counsels that you have to be respectful and responsible while making the business case. She has found it helpful to frame such discussions with her volunteers in the context of the bigger picture of our mission as associations to improve society. She also explains that the cultural makeover that started within ASHA’s office to define relationships between staff spilled over to volunteers in an unintended fashion, and volunteers began to change the way they interacted with staff. There was a ripple effect.

Remember that everyone has a voice but not everyone has the power to make decisions, says Notter.

He offers the example of My Starbucks Idea, a crowdsourcing platform open from 2008 to 2017, that encouraged customers to submit ideas directly to the company about anything linked to the brand. More than 150,000 ideas were submitted and 277 were implemented. The little green drink stoppers were a customer idea that made sense to implement; and a complicated custom ordering idea that would’ve required every store to be rewired was rejected because it was just not feasible.

ASHA has started to use IdeaScale to crowdsource ideas from staff. Pietranton recognizes that creativity is good in areas such as how to engage members, but not in others such as credentialing, where there’s no leeway.

Associations have some inherent challenges to being entrepreneurial, points out Notter. Data shows that we are not agile — we rank below manufacturing (with its assembly lines!) in agility. We resist conflict, which makes it hard to embrace change. And we do not distribute the power to take action down the food chain.

However, these limitations can’t stop us from building the culture we want and know is right for us if we have the playbook. At the end of the day, culture is not abstract, it’s about systems and processes.