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Why Change Organisational Culture?

Can  you change the thin blue line?

It is a highly visible and well-stereotyped group, the New Zealand Police. The smart blue uniform, the image of being action oriented in armed incidents and yet compassionate to lost children or grieving families. This describes a well-known view of how policing is delivered to the community. A picture, many would regard as that of a highly successful organization.

However, as with many other organisations, police have been struggling with the idea that things could be better.

We could do things differently around here and in fact will have to if we are to keep pace with the changes occurring in the law and order industry and the wider community.

The organisation has been proactive in setting up a major change programme (Policing 2000) to meet its strategic goals. "Positioning Police to achieve Safer Communities Together" was the mission of the change programme. The vision and design work were sound and yet when this change programme began to struggle with the implementation of what seemed to be a logical way of assisting police to meet their strategic goals, this puzzled the team.

  • What was stopping the organisation from implementing the redesign projects that would take it forward?
  • Why was there insurmountable resistance and at times, overt aggression to new ways of doing things?
  • How would the project teams implementing change survive in such a hostile environment?

The answers to these questions are directly linked to the impact of organisational culture.

Organisational culture is something about which most people have an opinion but few have a clear understanding.

The definition we have used is "the way people are expected to fit in, to get ahead here".

In police, there was no formal research to describe these behaviours. What was it like to work here? What were the expected behaviours this large organisation? We really didn’t know other then anecdotally.

To go back a step, we were slow to realise the importance of cultural change within overall change process. This is easy to do because cultural change is about small but vital things which shift attitude before behavioural change occurs. Vital, because cultural change increases acceptance of change.

One of our initial mistakes was to believe that line managers could do "change management" before we developed principles, advice and processing the context of organisational development, where the goal was to build capability to effect and manage the effects of change.

Another dimension to this mistake was that we believed projects would, on their own, ‘implement’ change. Our line managers were always going to have to implement change, and the dangers of ignoring them as key players was realised very late.

How Did This Cultural Change Fit With the Strategic Approach to Change Management?

Our organisational culture change strategy is part of a set of four strategies for change management. This particular strategy is built around the identification of desirable behaviours and their measurement, both prior to change, and periodically thereafter.

Backing this up with climate data – "How satisfying it is to work here?" – is useful to add depth to the tactical analysis that is required to plot directional change.

This required the use of a reliable instrument and the regular examination of the gap between current and desired behaviours.

For this to be effective, top management support is essential to provide support for the instrument, and in modelling the desired behaviours. In addition, there is a need to keep the whole organisation involved, communicating the results and progress, seeking ideas for change and to support local workplace initiatives.

Key actions to support this strategy were:

  • Verbal, not written communication of the result of the survey
  • Integration of the culture assessment data with other projects, for example, the Quality Policing programme
  • Modelling of the approach in the way the strategy was introduced to the organisation, that is, encouraging managers to use the tools, not mandating it
  • And most importantly, the design and delivery of a management development programme. An overarching management development strategy, linking behavioural change and management skills together with professional knowledge (policing) is essential for building this capability.

What Was the Process For Researching Culture?

The research was a key piece of work needed to support the change programme.

If the programme was to succeed, then there had to be good data collected on how people were expected to behave to fit in, this would enable us to see if the expected behaviours were supporting the introduction of change or hindering it.

After a rigorous tender process we decided to use an instrument called an Organisational Culture Inventory (OCI). The process involved the completion of a questionnaire, the answers to which load onto a circumplex (a circle with twelve behavioural styles graphed on it).

Behaviours are described in three key areas: constructive styles (achievement, self-actualising, humanistic/encouraging and affiliative), passive defensive styles (approval, conventional, dependence, avoidance) and aggressive defensive styles (oppositional, power, competitive and perfectionistic).

The circumplex gives a strong visual impression of the behaviours that the respondents said were the ones that were expected in the Police.

In order to do a gap analysis (to build our case for change) a further group was sampled for the ideal culture.

There was a clear gap between the desired organisational culture and the actual. The discussions that followed developed a shared view that more constructive behaviour was required in order to achieve the best performance from the people and a result the organisation.

It is a simple truth that organisations are just the sum of the people in them, change their behaviours to a more constructive way of doing things and there is measurable culture change.

What Happens Now?

A major test of how sustainable change is, has been a recent external review and restructure of the organisation. In general, the organisation has responded by using the old patterns of behaviour. While some groups have actively chosen to continue changes to their behaviours, this is not universal.

This recent hiccup in the programme of change has emphasised the fact that there is a time component to culture change.

It takes a long time for a cultural change to be embedded and therefore sustainable. After all, the behaviour changes required have become habitual ways of doing things and as with most habits there has to be sufficient pain for them to be altered.

Despite this setback we have continued to use an individual measure of management performance with the LSI (Lifestyles Inventory) which has helped to give some people the experience of direct feedback on behaviour. For many this has been the catalyst for doing things differently.

The LSI has become an integral part of the management development programme, a key action in the culture change strategy. As we introduce more people at all levels of the organisation to this tool the more we will see sustainable change.

The next major step is to re-measure the behaviours using the OCI, which will give statistical evidence of whether change has occurred and where.

The updated data will enable us to see just how possible it is for the thin blue line to turn around.

Culture change is an enormous task for any organisation, especially one like police, which is large and decentralised. The potential for improvement is enormous with a staff, sworn and non-sworn, dedicated to the work of policing.

The desire to improve is actively talked about in Police however the proof of commitment to improvement will be, has this been followed by action?

Only time and regular measuring will tell if the desired turn around has been achieved.

This article was written for HRINZ Publication by: Jenny Prentice, Change Management Advisor, Policing Development Group, Police National Headquarters, Wellington.

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