Navigating Culture Change, Part 1: What Culture Is and Why It Matters
James Heiser, P.L.S., President and CEO of DPK

Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward Hall has compared culture to an iceberg. What we see in terms of processes, policies, and behaviors exists above the surface. This part of culture is visible. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Introduction

For about 15 years, I worked to absorb every facet of the surveying business from the ground up at DPK Consulting. As I expanded my knowledge and expertise, I started to look beyond my day-to-day responsibilities and develop my own vision for not only DPK, but the surveying profession. DPK leadership recognized this and told me I would lead the company someday.

When I became CEO, I quickly realized that growing the company would provide us with the resources to achieve my vision for DPK and contribute to strengthening the land surveying profession. This would require extensive education, new technology, better processes, and innovative solutions.

I knew a change in culture would be essential to achieving this goal. Developing a long-term vision for DPK, implementing that vision, getting people to understand and buy into that vision, and identifying leaders who would fully support and carry out that vision would be a long process.

Five years later, the evolution of the DPK culture has come into focus and the organization is beginning to thrive as a result. I wanted to share that journey and insights gained about company culture as part of a three-part series of articles:

  1. Understanding what culture is and why it matters
  2. The role of leadership in navigating culture issues
  3. How to successfully change organizational culture

The first step in this process was to define culture in general terms, examine the existing DPK culture, and create a vision of what the DPK culture should be.

So, what Is culture?

Culture is a system of shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that guide how an organization’s people behave, interact with others, and make decisions.

Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward Hall has compared culture to an iceberg. What we see in terms of processes, policies, and behaviors exists above the surface. This part of culture is visible. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The much larger part of culture, which ultimately drives what an organization accomplishes, exists below the surface. This part of culture – your values, beliefs, perceptions, aspirations, stories, and feelings, require much more exploration to understand and cultivate.

While the visible tip of the iceberg focuses on how you say you get things done, the invisible part below the surface determines how things really get done. It’s also essential to preparing for and implementing cultural change.

15 years at DPK taught me that we, like many small companies in technical services, with unpredictable conditions and tight deadlines, lived in a perpetual state of controlled chaos. Work was getting done and done well, but the process behind the scenes was not as seamless as it should have been. People were rarely empowered to think for themselves, so the CEO typically had to step in and personally make sure work was getting done. That model allowed for DPK to function but made it difficult, if not impossible, to grow.

I thought back to a book called Turn the Ship Around by L. David Marquet. The overarching message focused on whether a strong culture is based on telling people when to push the button or explaining why to push the button.

When you explain why to push the button, people learn the purpose of each task and how it affects our team and the client. With greater understanding comes more support for the vision of the organization and more opportunities for each individual to grow.

This is the kind of culture I wanted to implement at DPK.


The Difference Between “Good” and “Great”

It had been a long time since I first read the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, but I told myself that “good” just wouldn’t cut it for me. I wanted DPK to be great.

While culture generally reflects the vision of the company’s leader, all efforts to improve the culture were about DPK as an organization. I knew we needed the right team to reach our goals.

You can have a talented group of employees who are great at what they do, but to grow and be great, everyone needs to move forward together as a cohesive team. This is why culture is so important.

Everyone must understand and believe in what the company stands for, why the company functions the way it does, and what the company is trying to achieve. Culture builds team unity and ensures everyone is moving in the same direction with the same purpose.

As more of the company culture comes to the surface, you find out who supports the culture and who doesn’t. Your team starts to take shape and leaders are identified.

At DPK, we’ve gone through significant turnover in company leadership during the past five years. That’s not a bad thing. Personnel change can be difficult, but it’s often a necessary step in building a team filled with people who live and breathe the culture you’re trying to build.

In Part 2 of this series on culture, I’ll discuss the role of leadership and employees in navigating culture issues and the most common challenges that need to be overcome.

Navigating Culture Change, Part 2: The Role of Leadership and Employees
James Heiser, P.L.S., President and CEO of DPK

Although the vision typically comes from leadership, the vision itself should focus on the success and strength of the organization. If this vision isn’t communicated clearly, the rest of the organization could be left to interpret and develop their own vision, which could end up being much different.

Introduction

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how changing culture begins with understanding the true definition of culture, assessing your company’s existing culture, and creating a vision for what you want your company culture to be.

The part of culture that we see every day – processes, policies, and behaviors – is just the tip of the iceberg. These visible components can sometimes be changed and communicated relatively quickly.

The much larger part of culture that exists beneath the surface – values, beliefs, perceptions, aspirations, stories, and feelings – ultimately determines how things get done across the organization.

These much deeper, often hidden components of culture take time to understand. Getting people to move in the same direction with purpose and cohesiveness is an ongoing process. This is essential, however, to shaping and implementing a new culture.

The unfortunate reality is that about seven in 10 change initiatives fail due to negative employee attitudes and unproductive management behaviors. Employees don’t support the vision, while leadership fails to make a strong enough case for change, anticipate and deal with resistance, and involve employees who can increase the likelihood of success.

Change most often fails when there is no clear and compelling case for the change – as leaders, we must provide tangible examples and enough disconfirming data for employees to understand the reason for the change and to potentially get their buy-in. Without it, change is doomed from the start.

The key is to understand the roles both leaders and employees play in overcoming challenges and enable positive change.

How Leaders Drive Culture Change

Although the vision typically comes from leadership, the vision itself should focus on the success and strength of the organization. If this vision isn’t communicated clearly, the rest of the organization could be left to interpret and develop their own vision, which could end up being much different.

During my first five years as CEO of DPK Consulting, most of our people were conditioned by a culture of being told what to do. They always relied on someone else to tell them what button to push. These old habits are hard to break.

My vision for DPK focuses on why the button should be pushed. When you understand the reason behind something and what it enables us to accomplish as a company, nobody will have to tell you to push the button. The difference is a culture that promotes personal empowerment, professional growth, and continuous improvement operationally.

I knew I needed to lay out my vision, model the behaviors I wanted my team to adopt, and encourage the team to be a part of this vision.

Leadership must not only have a vision and work to implement that vision, but also constantly communicate the vision to get people to buy into it. You can never take your foot off the pedal. For the past five years, I’ve kept a sticky note on my desk that reminds me of my responsibilities as the leader and CEO of DPK:

  • Build and maintain a cohesive leadership team
  • Create organizational clarity
  • Over-communicate organizational clarity
  • Reinforce organizational clarity through human systems

When leadership provides clarity, the deeper, unseen parts of the company culture mentioned previously become more visible. Cohesiveness across the organization starts to build, and the vision you’re trying to build comes into focus.

How Employees Impact Cultural Change and Why They Resist

A few years ago, we launched a swag initiative. We gave out branded DPK shirts and promotional items to the entire team every quarter. One of the reasons for this initiative was to see how excited and proud people were to be part of DPK.

To be clear, I’m not saying the success of culture change is measured by how many people show off their company swag. The larger point is that everyone must believe in the vision. Everyone must care about the company. They should be enthusiastic about doing the best possible work. They need to support and care about each other and our customers.

At DPK, we have many different players involved with each project, from managers and coordinators to draftsmen and field personnel. They’re rarely in the same room, but when everyone is on the same page with regards to both day-to-day tasks and the big picture vision, you build accountability, enable better decision making, and create a more cohesive operation.

Unfortunately, some people will resist change. They might feel it’s unnecessary. They could be afraid change will make their job harder. They often fear the change or do not see the reason for it. They might have different beliefs and values. Regardless of the reason, resistance to change will typically lower the ceiling for success for both the individual and the organization.

The fact is that some employees positively impact cultural change by leaving. Those who don’t support the culture and leave the company are no longer obstacles to progress. It’s best for both sides. Those who believe in the culture and vision will stay and work together as a team.

At DPK, changing the culture at all levels of the organization has taken years. We’ve faced our share of obstacles but persevered and ended up in a much better place. In Part 3 of this series on navigating culture change, I’ll discuss the steps involved in changing organizational culture and building a high-performance team that supports the culture.

How Your Proposal Process Can Reduce Chaos, Preserve Profit and Support a Strong Culture
James Heiser, P.L.S., President and CEO of DPK

Businesses often get caught up in sales targets as they set higher goals for top-line revenue and pump out proposals at a faster rate. Generally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that. These are, after all, important indicators of performance.

The real danger is approaching sales with blinders on and focusing on landing as many customers as possible as quickly as possible. Perhaps a better approach is the example of a water wheel. It uses just the right amount of water to turn smoothly and consistently. It’s pace, and the energy created, is in perfect balance with what’s being produce as a product. Not carefully evaluating each customer and all of the specific requirements of project can lead to an imbalance. Disruptions in flow lead to obstacles that impact on not just profitability, but your people, your operations and the customer experience.

Overcoming the “All Business Is Good Business” Myth

The front-end sales and proposal writing process is a crucial time for gathering information. More than trying to close the sale, your employees should be interviewing the client to determine if the scope of the project aligns with your operations and capabilities.

Commercial surveying projects, for example, can be riddled with complex technical challenges, unreliable data, and changes to properties and field conditions. At DPK, we have to dig much deeper than basic project parameters such as cost, deadline, and production schedule.

  • Is the customer’s scope of work complete?
  • Is the job site within our specified geographic service area?
  • Have the project site conditions been reviewed by the client?
  • Which employee skillsets and certifications match the specific needs of the customer?
  • Do we have the right equipment available?
  • To what extent can the customer’s history give us a sense of their expectations, communications level, and how they value the services we provide?

The answers to these questions will likely trigger another round of questions that further inform our decision about whether the customer and project are the right fit in terms of expertise, capabilities, and bandwidth. This process also helps us determine if it makes sense to push our resources to their limits or expand our capabilities to increase the number of optimal customers and projects.

Ultimately, closing the sale is the starting block, not the finish line. Slowing down the sales and proposal-writing process may reduce the total number of proposals but doing so can actually produce better results. Getting the proposal to the client as quickly as possible might help accelerate the process of landing a project, but at what cost?

If a project stumbles across the finish line and missteps, miscommunication, and other problems result in a negative experience, then what have you gained? Keep in mind that the customer will feel the same level of dissatisfaction, which isn’t good for anyone.

Proactive Preparation, Analytical Thinking, and Culture

Instead of reacting to this scenario above by saying, “I did the best I could with what I had,” make sure you have what you need to do the job right.

Rather than simply moving forward with the information you have in front of you, be proactive and prepare. If possible, gather deeper information to ensure the client and project are well-suited for your company. Think about how various tasks, challenges, and variables affect your team at every stage of the project.

Beyond sales and landing the contract, employees should continue this focus to ensure the project is produced smoothly and efficiently. Embracing a winning attitude will empower yourself and your team to do what’s necessary to properly move the work forward. It will set up your organization, your project and your customer for a successful experience.

The more lofty goal is building a culture in which every employee is motivated to show up each day and do great work. They have to care about their co-workers, the organization as whole, and the customer. They have to be accountable for themselves and others. They have to be willing and able to look more than one step ahead and beyond their own responsibilities.

To be clear, there is no way to prevent every hiccup. However, a more methodical approach to business development, supported by preparation, analytical thinking, and a strong culture will make roadblocks easier to overcome. It will enable you to circumvent unnecessary inefficiencies, complete projects on time, satisfy the customer, improve employee morale, and maximize profits.
If you found this article to be of benefit, you may also want to read “Every Project Is a Story”.