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Culture Change Series #3: How do you go about changing organisational culture?

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In previous blogs in our Culture Series we’ve looked at five reasons why organisations should pay more attention to culture during change initiatives, and a ‘four lever’ model by which we can understand and work with culture – suggesting that this may be a more useful approach than seeking a precise definition of organisational culture. In this blog we’ll highlight five lessons we’ve learned about how you can work with these levers to effect a change in culture. You’ll find that reading the previous blogs in the series will help you make sense of this one.

1. Work with your core values

First, really understand and then work with the existing core values. That sounds pretty obvious, but we’ve seen businesses trip themselves up on this. It’s not about previously published values, rather the real nature of the organisation, which is often not explicit.
For example, leaders may seek to drive cultural change towards greater agility through an emphasis on empowered individual decision making. We’ve seen this fail, however, because the existing values, working implicitly, favoured highly consensual behaviours. Ignoring this, rather than working with it (perhaps by focusing on ways of reaching consensus more rapidly and on breaking deadlock), was almost certainly bound to fail. So, be intentional about understanding the core values that are at play, unspoken, in the organisation.

2. Culture should be part of your corporate strategy

Next, while ignoring culture makes no sense (to us anyway), we find that treating it as an end in itself rarely works either. Cultural change initiatives seem to work best when culture strategy is understood as integral to broader corporate strategy, rather than something to be addressed in isolation.
In two different organisations recently, we’ve seen worthy culture change initiatives run into the sand because they weren’t sufficiently integrated into a broader strategic change purpose. Make sure everybody knows not just what culture change you’re seeking, but why that matters – link that to the organisation’s purpose too.

3. Accept that it’s going to take some time

Third, remember that cultures very, very rarely change overnight. It might be that business needs are exceptionally pressing, but that doesn’t mean that desired new values, artefacts and behaviours can be established in a matter of months. Nietzsche coined the phrase ‘a long obedience in the same direction’ – and that’s what’s needed for effective, embedded culture change that’s real. So, plan culture change interventions over two years and more; think about different and evolving themes and campaigns, so that the four levers are given space to support each other over extended periods.

4. Culture change needs to be tackled top-down, bottom-up and middle-out

Fourth, be creative, drawing on all levels of the organisation. We’ve seen the power and enormous impact when front-line peers are harnessed across a range of media – certainly more than top down pronouncements alone. Where appropriate, gamifying progress in behaviours and artefacts can drive a virtuous circle of ideas and changes. Be bold: courageous leaders and leadership teams, visibly calling themselves out and highlighting their own behavioural change will have real impact – especially when aligned changes in artefacts accompany this. Quick wins can often flow from this.

5. Keep it all joined up

Don’t expect that if you do a wonderful values campaign and ignore behaviours anything much will change. Don’t think that modelling different behaviours will shift the culture as a whole if artefacts such as recognition systems and process remain the same. And, realise that if you change artefacts without describing the values that you’re looking to embody, then all that you’ll do is confuse people. Work with all four levers, together, creatively, over time.

 

Clearly, changing culture is challenging. We’d love to hear how you react to these five principles – and what other lessons you’d highlight. Let us know!

 

We frequently post our thoughts, ideas and tips on: change management, learning and communications, PMO/CMO, employee engagement and culture.

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