Hack Your Culture to Lead Through COVID-19

By Mary Mesaglio

COVID-19 is disrupting life as we know it, and sadly, we are not nearing the end of this crisis. As remote work becomes the new normal and business operations shift to account for a rapidly changing economy, many business leaders are challenged to ensure their teams remain cohesive, productive and engaged during this time. This has required a substantial shift in culture for organizations in all industries.

In a time of crisis, culture – that is, long-held beliefs and behaviours – can change overnight, as we’ve all seen during COVID-19. It’s up to leaders to direct that change. Most leaders approach big change with big transformation efforts, but there’s a better, and a faster, way: culture hacking. A culture hack is a small adjustment to culture that garners big results. Here are the ingredients for a great culture hack, as well as the real-world ways that CEOs, CIOs and other business leaders are using culture hacking to lead through challenging times.

Culture Hack

A great culture hack includes five key ingredients – it’s actionable, it’s low-effort, it’s immediate, it’s visible and it’s emotional.

Actionable: Hacks should naturally scale, allowing them to go “viral” across the organization. Make it easy for people at all levels to adopt the hack. This matters at the start of a crisis, when teams are faced with highly tactical challenges they have to overcome before examining anything longer term.

Low effort: Most hacks should be designed and executed within 48 hours. If it takes a team months to prepare, it’s not a hack. However, don’t confuse low effort with low courage. Many of the best hacks are simple to prepare but require courage to carry out.

Immediate: The effects of a hack should be immediate. Humans aren’t skilled at delayed gratification, so if it takes month for a change to manifest, it will be difficult to get people on board. This is especially true in a crisis, where leaders need to make big decisions quickly, at the start, and then figure out ways to keep their people motivated through the months that follow the initial acute response.

Visible: The hack should have high signaling power to a significant group of people, showing them that something has changed. A crisis like Covid-19 makes obvious that things have changed. It’s up to leaders to determine how things have changed and make that transparent and visible to all.

Emotional: Change is primarily an emotional process, not an analytical one. Your hack should incite an emotional reaction, such as surprise, shock, pride, joy, humour, discomfort or even fear. In a time of crisis, leaders should incite positive emotions, since there is enough fear going around already.

Real-World Hacks

In a February 2020 Gartner poll, leaders report that maintaining worker productivity and engagement is a top concern during the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders are the first line of defense for workers and are best positioned to initiate a culture hack. Those leading during the COVID-19 crisis will need their departments to be innovative, open, agile and autonomous. Real-world culture hacks have helped IT leaders drive these organizational changes.

For example, one department head was struggling with a lack of engagement after his team shifted to remote meetings. There were only a few voices speaking up, and even discussion did arise, there was a sense of formality that never was present when the team met in-person. To encourage a more lighthearted banter, he would start every meeting with a new, non-work-related question for all team members to answer: What do you see out your window right now? Or, what was the last meal that you ate? This helped set the tone of exchange and feedback that he wanted.

In another organization Gartner worked with, management was trying to create a more innovative culture to account for changes in operations due to COVID-19, but they struggled to find the right people to lead these efforts. Leadership sent a companywide email asking associates to nominate their most creative peers. The most-named individuals were then targeted for innovation work. This was a quick and low-effort way to identify innovators, while also providing emotional gratification for those that were nominated.

In a final example, one IT director felt that she was struggling to get people to share honest feedback during meetings. Given her leadership role, employees were worried about challenging the status quo. That director instated a rule that she would not end any meeting until she was asked three thorny, challenging questions. This demonstrated that tough questions are not only encouraged, but required, driving a culture of openness and creativity.

Culture Hack Your Organization

Using these guidelines and examples, collaborate with others to design your own culture hack. Be clear about the change you seek and what you’re hacking towards. This can be done by examining the current culture, how it became that way, which parts work well and which areas would benefit from hacking.

When brainstorming hacks, look for small, fun ideas that can begin today. Something as simple as changing how you start a meeting or setting a new rule for email communication can have a strong effect. Avoid choosing something that is overly complicated or will require outside approval.

Continuously assess whether your hacks are working as planned and if desired behaviours are emerging. Discontinue hacks whose effects have expired. Above all, remember that you don’t need to have a grand hacking plan, completely designed in advance, to begin culture hacking. If you know what you’re hacking towards, you can and should start now.

Mary Mesaglio is a Canadian-based Distinguished Vice President with Gartner’s Digital Futures group on the CIO research team. Her research has a practical bent and is focused on helping enterprises to transform, innovate and change their culture.