Develop a Culture of Discipline to Drive Engagement & Results

Jim Collins

Jim Collins said that “a culture of discipline is not a principle of business, it is a principle of greatness.”  Those words might resonate with many leaders who are feeling frustrated about aspects of accountability, attention to detail, collaboration, or some other area in their organization.  The reality is that discipline must start with the habits, routines, and rigor of leadership.  Therefore, the big question is, “what are the approaches that will set the tone for a deeper culture of discipline?”

Discipline Starts at the Top
Many leaders jump to conclusions about the source of potential cultural problems or frustrations in their organization. A good example is accountability.  While a leader might be frustrated with the lack of follow-up, proactive action, and attention to detail of their employees, those same employees are often complaining about a lack of clear priorities, expectations, and support.

I regularly ask top leaders to identify their #1 performance priority (priorities like growth, profit, customer satisfaction, etc. are often raised).  I then ask them what their #1 frustration or challenge is with how their team works together to support their #1 performance priority.  Accountability is typically the top response, but it’s closely followed by challenges related to collaboration, teamwork, innovation and creativity.  After deeper discussion, in nearly every instance, the issue was not accountability, teamwork or creativity, but a lack of discipline at the top of the organization.  It didn’t matter if it was a large global organization or a small business, the lack of consistent habits and rigor was clearly impacting performance.   These same organizations often try everything from performance management systems to training, coaching and other approaches to deal with the symptoms, rather than the root cause.

The answer starts with building discipline in the culture foundation of the organization.  The following checklist can be used as a guide to assess the culture foundation:

Culture Core – Your Purpose and Values

  • The purpose and/or mission is clearly documented and consistently shared
  • Values are documented and further clarified with expected behaviors captured in stories, definitions, or examples

Priorities and Measures

  • The top leader has clarified the top performance priorities and their vision for the focus of any improvement necessary (Note: John Kotter highlighted that most leaders under communicate their change vision by a factor of 10, 100 or even 1000X)
  • The strategy of the organization is documented
  • The general strategy is communicated clearly to the organization with explanation of supporting strategic priorities (areas of focus)
  • Top leaders use a consistent approach to engage the organization in defining the goals and related improvements that support the strategy
  • Goals or objectives are clearly documented and rigorously tracked in a standard format
  • Leading and lagging measures are defined
  • Standard formats are used for at least a sub-set of the measures

Daily Management

  • A regular management meeting (staff meeting, leadership team meeting, etc.) is held to track the status of goals and measures
  • A standard agenda framework is followed for management meetings
  • Actions are captured and tracked from management meetings
  • Top leaders “confront reality” and surface difficult issues for resolution during management meetings
  • Regularly scheduled group communication meetings, webcasts, or other approaches are consistently maintained
  • A standard agenda framework is used for regularly scheduled communication activities
  • Top leaders periodically check with individuals and sub-groups before, during, and after communication activities to confirm and/or improve clarity
  • Top leaders surface drama, rumors, and the most serious concerns for open discussion in communication activities
  • There is accountability among top leaders for making and meeting commitments related to goals and measures
  • A disciplined process to hire for competence and cultural fit is rigorously followed

“Checking off” or resolving the above items is a great start to the process of building a true culture of discipline.  This foundation of discipline often helps position organizations to meet many challenges that go beyond behavior issues like accountability or other areas. Top leaders end up being amazed at just how accountable, collaborative or creative their team actually has the capability of being once they build a strong foundation of discipline.

This type of discipline may not be a fit for your organization, but consider it before jumping to conclusions about a deeper culture problem that really isn’t a culture problem at all.

Do you agree that the lack of discipline is often the root cause behind culture problems?  What are other approaches to build a culture discipline?  

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Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of CultureUniversity.com and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He leads collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society.

Human Synergistics is home of the Organizational Culture Inventory, the most widely used and heavily researched culture assessment in the world, and the Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, the premier organizational culture event.

He authored the 2014 book - Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. Learn from the very thorough culture on-demand webinar. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm. He is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Inc.com.

His 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top mission / performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and share the latest insights across many experts. Email him to learn more about CultureU or Human Synergistics.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • Norman Jentner

    To begin, “Yes, I agree,” that “a lack of discipline is often the root cause behind culture problems,” but that it is often not the type of “lack of discipline” to which one might first be attributing a need for change.

    I also agree this this is not always the “problem.”

    I think your insight is potentially “huge,” Tim, especially when it comes to understanding some executive’s natural resistance to focusing on their company’s culture.

    Thank you, once again, for your succinct and practical recommendations here, consistent with what I find in your book, Build the Culture Advantage, and with what I keep finding incorporated in your many insightful blog comments throughout the blog-comment networks with which I am familiar.

    I do have one little question and then want to describe one big challenge I face when reading your excellent, thought-provoking post here.

    One little question: What do you mean by “Standard formats are used for at least a sub-set of the measures” and how is this different than “Goals or objectives are clearly documented and rigorously tracked in a standard format”?

    One big challenge I face: This second issue is, for me, a bigger one. This has to do with your suggesting a “checklist” mentality (unless tongue-in-cheek) when it comes to considering and implementing a culture invigoration effort.

    Let’s start with “leaders using a ‘disciplined’ consistent approach” to “engage their organization,” in the many ways you outline, from “defining the goals and related improvements that support the strategy,” through “clearly document[ing] and rigorously track[ing] in a standard format” and the “disciplined consistency of sharing information and stories.” (I could give even more examples, from your excellent recommendations).

    In my opinion, each of these examples are potentially “huge” undertakings, unless already skilled at this sort of thing, especially when the focus includes what can come up in a culture change effort, often inconveniently so.

    At core for me here also are your recommendations that “Top leaders ‘confront reality’ and surface difficult issues for resolution during management meetings,” and proactively “surface drama, rumors, and the most serious concerns for open discussion in communication activities,” and “periodically check with individuals and sub-groups before, during, and after communication activities to confirm and/or improve clarity.”

    Each of these are vivid examples, in my mind, of the nonnegotiable importance that top leadership, not just employees, each be willing and able to “face their own Dragons” as this process unfolds, with accountability, as you assert.

    “Facing my own Dragons” has been, personally, a repeated requirement I’ve had to face, time and again, during my chosen career as a culture professional and as a conflict resolution consultant. It has not always been easy or personally predictable.

    I must presume the same is true for many others who are operating, or considering operating, in this same arena, even if as an executive leader or member of an executive leadership team.

    Hence, if undertaken with full understanding of what a culture invigoration might entail, I can well empathize with any potential trepidation toward consideration of a “culture shift”.

    It is not simply a “checklist” of items to address. It is, instead, a specific breadth of personal responsibilities to undertake, with “predictable surprises” to address, through leadership by example with accountability. Again, you outline these considerations extremely well in your book, Build the Culture Advantage.

    Prudent consideration of such undertakings requires both personal counsel and reflection.

    Senior decision-makers may intuitively understand how working on real and important problems, with accountability, builds leadership. Senior leaders may not understand the level of involvement necessary to ensure a culture change program’s success.

    Related to culture change efforts, I think, are the “Action Learning” requirements that senior decision-makers be highly involved in (i) identifying urgent and critical challenges, (ii) approving the charters developed by teams to address those challenges, (iii) evaluating solutions, and (iv) supporting materially as well as psychologically the implementation of worthy solutions (Marquardt, et. al, 2009).

    You clearly allude to the fact that a “foundation of discipline [that] often helps position organizations to meet many challenges that go beyond behavior issues like accountability” is not a given among leadership.

    How would you encourage top decision-makers to proactively include all the above calculations in their consideration of whether or not to take on “the edge of chaos” in a culture shift effort, especially in light of your reported experiences that “after deeper discussion, in nearly every instance, the issue was not [the organization’s] accountability, teamwork or creativity, but a lack of discipline at the top of the organization”?

    Moreover, how would this not also be a culture problem?

    Best.

    ====

    Marquardt, Leonard, Freedman & Hill (2009) Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations, American Psychological Association.

    • Tim Kuppler

      Hi Norman,
      Thank you for the thorough comments and I’ll do my best to cover the questions. Standard formats and templates are referenced for both goals / objectives and measures. Team members get used to the consistency of how information is presented. Team members will zero in on color ratings, status summaries or results columns in many goal tracking formats and measures might have trends, goals, etc. that team members get used to looking for (versus every key measure being in it’s own format that each person needs to understand).

      Regarding each of these being huge undertakings, you know about my recommendation to start with a major performance priority, business challenge or problem. It’s easier to clarify goals, measures, communication, etc. in that one specific area as a foundation for expanding to other areas.

      I don’t disagree with any of the action learning points you referenced. I do think those areas, again, should be focused on a specific performance priority, problem or challenge and not generic work. The areas of discipline are just examples but habits help provide a framework in which to operate. They help provide clarity about expectations and plans so the drama, confusion and uncertainty are reduced – leaving the “real” behavior issues. You could definitely consider the lack of discipline / order as a culture problem but I think many leaders don’t appreciate how critical a clear framework of habits / routines is in most organizations. These habits can be implemented over a few months and make a tremendous impact if feedback & prioritization is used as a guide to continually improve the effectiveness of each area (goal tracking, measures, management / leadership meetings, communication habits, reward & recognition, etc.).

      Thank you again for all the feedback.

  • Norman Jentner

    Tim,

    Thank you for clarifying the reasoning behind your recommendations concerning use of standard formats and templates, wherever and whenever possible, to clearly document and rigorously track goals and objectives. I appreciate this.

  • Norman Jentner

    Getting Started Need Not Be Difficult

    Tim,

    I appreciate your recommendations concerning the importance of focusing on a priority of real significance to tackle and to not simply focus on generic work. This is a also key tenant of Action Research, validating your point here.

    I believe I understand you to be asserting that a conscious focus on “culture” and upon “culture improvement” need not begin with, nor result in, a “huge” or overwhelming undertaking, but can be naturally integrated, step-by-step, to increasing advantage, into what and beginning with what people are already understanding and doing. It is important to scale one’s effort, step-by-step. Is this correct?

    Thank you for conceding that I could definitely consider the lack of discipline / order as a culture problem.

    Even so, you provide the good news that beginning to tackle this problem can be relatively simple and straight-forward — that many leaders simply don’t fully appreciate both how critical, and simple, development of a clear framework of habits & routines can be for their own organization. They can implement these habits over a few months and make a tremendous impact, if, as you state, “feedback & prioritization is used as a guide to continually improve the effectiveness of each area (goal tracking, measures, management / leadership meetings, communication habits, reward & recognition, etc.).”

    Once again, I understand you to be asserting that a conscious focus on “culture” and upon “culture improvement” need not begin with, nor result in, a “huge” or overwhelming undertaking, but can be naturally integrated, step-by-step, to increasing advantage, into what people are already understanding and doing.

    Ed Marshall, CultureU, has recently emphasized the critical importance of the CEO as Chief Culture Officer (COO), and why this role cannot be delegated. I believe we all would agree this works best in concert with a strong bottom-up foundation.

    I believe I hear you and Ed both asserting that an effective and accountable focus on one’s own business culture, as COO, will require a breadth and depth of personal and team development responsibilities of that individual — emotional, intellectual, attitudinal, and behavioral — resulting in her or his executive leadership teams being effectively engaged and co-leading the way, with others by example. This progresses to all leadership teams (read here, “all personnel”) throughout the company.

    Do I have this correct?

    I so much appreciate the CultureU discussion concerning culture and leadership representing two sides of the same coin.

    Best.

  • Tim Kuppler

    Norman,
    Thank you for your comments. You are correct with your reference to the focus on business problems versus generic work and it not needing to be huge or overwhelming undertaking. There are some organizations that may take the “all in” approach. They may adjust their deeper strategies and plans based on an understanding of cultural aspects that are both helping and holding them back from effective management of those strategies and plans. It’s a more overwhelming undertaking but may be appropriate for an organization that’s confident about their ability to effectively build clarity as a team. Tim

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