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Changing a company mindset

Mindsets are critically important in a company. But they are a nightmare if you need to change them. A mindset is all the assumptions and ways of working held by people who work at a company. In effect it is the company culture. It is the result of repeated actions at a company that have become the norm. Those actions and behaviours are a habit. The mindset ensures that the company runs smoothly. Everyone does things in a certain way. There is no need to tell people what to do because it is simply “how we do things around here”.

But what if there is a need to change this mindset? Markets change, technology changes, competition changes. At some stage most companies need to change their mindset. It may be that there is a need to become more customer orientated, or more innovative, or more cost conscious, or more quality minded. Companies need to constantly reinvent themselves and this presents problems.

The problems are nearly always to do with intransigent behaviours. The repeated behaviours which were so important in creating the company culture lead to a “world view” that is not going to be changed easily. Doing things differently goes against the grain. It doesn’t fit with the culture. A change in behaviour may be necessary for a company to successfully grow.

In 2008 Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, wrote a book called Nudge. Rather than make huge changes they suggest behaviour can be affected by small but significant adjustments to the way things are done. Victories by these little changes ultimately result in permanent and more fundamental changes to people's behaviour. The key is to make it easy to make the change. For example, people can be encouraged to eat more healthy snacks if they are positioned next to the checkout counter in a grocery store. It eliminates the need to search for the healthy option. The choice is an easy one. However, nudging isn’t a one off solution. Mindsets are created by endless actions and so to achieve a new behaviour means that nudges must be repeated again and again. It helps if the changes are made easy. For example, most people will agree to donate their organs if they don’t have to do anything. If donation is the default position, people are happy to acquiesce. We are creatures of habit and we like to choose the route of least resistance. Nudging is a good starting point for changing a company culture.

Mindsets are underpinned by emotions. We need to bear this in mind when trying to change behaviours. It is truly difficult to get people to flip flop their mindset. This would be like asking someone to change their political views by flicking a switch. It just doesn’t happen. But there is no reason why people can’t be pushed in a direction in which they are already travelling. Say for example a CEO wants to improve customer experience at a company. Everybody in a company knows that keeping the customer happy is important so there is no flip flopping of a mindset here; it is more about making this element of the mindset more important. Motivating posters and tent cards on desks can help. They provide a constant reminder of the important initiative that demands a culture change. Repetition is important as is varying the messages and keeping them fresh. These messages should be posted throughout an organisation and not just on the customer service desk.

Nudging is fine but it takes place in small bites and can take a long time to take effect. Andrew Messick is Chief Executive of Ironman Group. Ironman Group is an American company that organises athletic and endurance events around the world. When Messick took charge of the company in 2011 the group comprised a string of acquisitions that needed melding into a single operating company. A new mindset was required. The different offshoots pushed back. “You don’t understand the local situation” or “South Africans are different” or “Brazilians are not like Americans”. In the end what won through for Messick was an analysis of data. Messick analysed each of the local businesses to show that there is a better way. Of course, the evidence shouldn’t be rammed down someone’s throat for that would cause more resistance. It should be promoted as a way to make a great local business even better. The development of a growth mindset is achieved by praising the local company for its effort and suggesting it could achieve more growth if changes are made.

Changing a company mindset is never going to be easy but it can be done. Here are four steps to achieving a change:

  • Identify the good points about the existing mindset and the things that need changing. These legacy behaviours are important and need to be reinforced so people are reassured they won’t be lost.

  • Now find small and easy things to change that move the mindset in the right direction. Do it by nudging. Make sure the nudges are repeated regularly and frequently so they become a new habit.

  • Work on emotions. It is emotions that are the bedrock of mindsets. Use emotional words and stories to reinforce the positive outcomes of a change so that people are encouraged to do things differently.

  • Support the changes with facts. Tell people what effect the changes are having so they can feel the changes are worthwhile.

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