If you want to jumpstart culture change in your organisation, you need to create and cross the Rubicon.
In 49 BC when Julius Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon River heading towards the Roman capital, there was no turning back. It required total commitment to reach their objective because the alternative was death – crossing the Rubicon with an army was treated as a capital offence by the Roman state.
It became a scenario of ‘all or nothing’ for Caesar. He carried on and turned his campaign into a great success.
Fast forward to modern times and this well-known expression – ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ – is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. And it has no greater applicability than in the area of organisational change.
Anyone who has ever worked in this area knows that attempting to effectively change an organisation, especially its culture, is a challenging undertaking.
Three crucial steps to take
Organisational culture can be defined as self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking and believing. It is governed by a natural homeostasis that persists and therefore can be resistant to change.
Most organisations have some mix of functional and dysfunctional cultural elements. In determining the level of function (or dysfunction), two areas are often used for measurement: Firstly, the organisation’s performance and secondly, the level of health and wellness (i.e. stress levels) of its employees. Both are equally important.
If chronic dysfunction exists in relation to either of these two indicators, some assessment and change is required.
The historical metaphor of ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, and Caesar’s subsequent campaign, serve as an illustrative model for initiating and progressing organisational culture change.
Using this model, a successful change process would incorporate the following steps:
- Commitment and announcement
At the start of a change process, leaders commonly underestimate the challenges they could face and are not fully cognisant of the level of commitment required.
Leadership needs to prepare itself for the trials that lie ahead. A clear commitment is required at the start of the change process, much like Caesar had when he uttered the phrase alea iacta est (“The die is cast”) as his army crossed the river.
This attitude of commitment serves to fortify the leaders of an organisation at the outset and sustain them in doing what’s necessary to achieve change objectives for the overall good of the organisation.
To buttress this commitment, organisations need to clearly and fully broadcast the announcement of the change process it will undertake to anyone who will be affected by the change (that could be both internal and external stakeholders).
This commitment and announcement is when you first start ‘crossing the Rubicon’ – there should be no turning back.
In these communications, the leaders must clearly outline why the change process is commencing, what its goals are, and that employees’ input will be sought to inform the approach.
- Staff inclusion and plan development
Caesar gained the critical backing of his trusted army in his march towards Rome and beyond. Similarly, through including employees’ input and providing them with clear communication and vision, employees’ trust in the change process will increase.
If employees’ views have been included, the chances of encountering future resistance is reduced because they become more willing to support the process. Also, ensuring employee voice is included at all levels of the organisation allows senior management to have a more complete and nuanced understanding of the organisation’s culture and day-to-day practices.
When leaders combine their own information with the data they’ve acquired from employees, it allows them to put together a comprehensive plan to better navigate the uncharted waters.
- Implementation and follow up
After including staff input and formulating a plan, it’s paramount that implementation of the developed plan occurs quickly.
This goes back to the initial commitment (“no turning back”) – you need to ensure the job is done in a timely manner to maintain stakeholder buy-in.
However, in this implementation and follow up, three points are important to note. Firstly, the implementation must remain flexible and be open to adjustment based on new information that arises. For Caesar, his conquest of Rome took necessary detours away from the capital in pursuit of rivals’ armies.
Secondly, the organisation must be willing to make the tough decision required during change processes, such as exiting a troublesome leader or deciding to discontinue a particular service area that’s not contributing to organisational growth.
Thirdly, given the challenges of any change process, gains can revert back if there isn’t sufficient follow up to support progress made. This means fully implementing the plan and monitoring its status over time in order to support hard-won changes. This might be a 6 monthly check in at first, but it could eventually be done at the 12 or 24 month mark – this will depend on the organisation and the context.
Caesar didn’t just cross the Rubicon, he continued on and did what was required to secure triumph for Rome.
If an organisation skips or incorrectly implements any of these stages, it can undermine the process and make achieving change objectives more difficult.
Change in action
Let’s examine a case study of organisational culture change in which these steps were applied.
As part of my work as a consultant, my colleagues and I were contacted by the executive team of a medical department within a hospital. They needed assistance in addressing suspected long-term, cultural issues, including higher than expected levels of staff turnover, absenteeism, workplace conflict, work injury claims and patient incident reports.
In addition, executive management had been receiving verbal reports of concern (no formal complaints were lodged) from employees regarding the line manager of this department.
This suggested possible impacts to the department’s health and wellness and potential risks to service delivery. At the same time, the department had been meeting its performance targets and had achieved reasonable results in its annual culture surveys.
Both executive management and HR were puzzled that the information from these different sources didn’t match up with reality. They wanted to understand the situation in this department and when issues of significance were found, they sought to address them in continuation with the change process outlined above.
At our initial planning meeting with the hospital’s executives and HR advisors, we said if management wasn’t fully committed to following through with this from start to finish, they shouldn’t even begin.
Employees were interviewed, anonymously, in order to gain a complete picture of the department and how it was functioning.
The announcement of this review was made in a departmental meeting including information about its scope and purpose. Management also mentioned there would be time allocated for follow-up conversations.
Individual, anonymous interviews conducted by our consultancy were organised. These interviews sought their views regarding the department and any suggestions that they had for improvements. This information was then carefully de-identified and combined into ‘themes’ which would then be provided in a report with recommendations to executive management.
Important themes were identified in this review process, including cultural-related practices in communications, operations and underlying dynamics. It was also important to show what the department was already doing well. In this example, employees were very committed to patient care and were good at supporting one another.
When looking into the complaints about the line manager’s negative behaviour, it was confirmed that this was impacting employees and he was removed from this position and placed in a non-managerial role. The manager also received feedback in order to learn from the experience.
Feedback of the overall themes and recommendations was provided to employees in group feedback sessions and executive management now had a complete view of the information and recommendations for developing a plan to navigate the remainder of its cultural change process.
Over the subsequent months, executive management and HR continued with implementation of the report’s recommendations and followed up with employees to reinforce achieved improvements.
In a subsequent independent follow up by both my team and the executives via the HR team, the process delivered sustained improvements to the department’s culture as measured by departmental performance and particularly by employees’ reported levels of health and wellness, increased morale and job satisfaction.
There are different approaches to culture change within organisations and it’s not an easy thing to take on. But by using the historical metaphor of Caesar’s campaign beginning, it can jumpstart your efforts and provide a clear map for progress.
David Hall PhD is a consulting psychologist, a self-proclaimed history buff and director of DRDH P/L.
Plan to initiate change in your place? Before you cross the Rubicon, consider attending AHRI’s Change Management short course to ensure you’ve got up-to-date information and strategies.