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Culture Change Series #1: Five Reasons Why Culture Is Integral to Business Change

How many change programmes integrate work on organisational culture?  We increasingly think ‘not enough’.

There are some obvious reasons why culture is a bit of a Cinderella at the Change Management ball.  It can be tricky to understand and work with; it’s seen as more than a little intangible; and its reach is far wider than that of most change programmes.  Beyond that, cultures do not often change quickly – change programmes come and go while cultures persist or change slowly.  But if Afiniti’s recent Culture Change event is anything to go by, those involved in leading change are increasingly recognising the importance of culture.  With bookings for our event coming in fast, followed by a waiting list of eager participants, we knew we were dealing with a topic of real concern.

So, why should organisations pay more attention to culture? Afiniti’s experience suggests there are at least five reasons.

1. The link between culture and performance

First, there are swathes of evidence that link organisational (and functional, and team) culture to performance.  Simple searches throw up research suggesting, for example:

  • Culture, by linking to our motivations – why we work – determines how well we work
  • Culture is a powerful route to sustainable competitive advantage because it’s difficult to copy
  • Surveys suggest the majority of managers and leaders see culture as more important than strategy or operating model.

2. Culture as an integral element of business strategy

Second, culture is (or really ought to be) an integral element of strategy.  It’s 30 years since Henry Mintzberg highlighted ‘Perspective’ – ‘an ingrained way of perceiving the world’ – as an important way of thinking about strategy, tying it to culture and collective mind (individuals united by common thinking and / or behaviour).  And if culture is integral to strategy, how can it not be taken into account by change managers?

3. Cultures are naturally fluid and change over time

Third, organisational cultures change and will continue to change over time whether or not leaders and change managers are intentional about it.  We don’t need to be experts in generational theory to recognise that as boomers leave the workplace in large numbers and Generations X, Y and Z reshape organisations, so working cultures will change with radically different expectations, priorities and attitudes to technology.  The question facing change leaders is how their actions will interact with ongoing cultural change: will change programmes merely be impacted by, or will they play a role in shaping cultures that are changing anyway.

4. Culture can affect readiness and capability for change

Fourth, Afiniti’s own work identified culture as one of six key change readiness ‘levers’.  We’ve found that some cultures are more ‘change-ready’ than others, more able and willing to embrace change.  We know that where organisations are more ‘change-ready’ across all six levers, of which culture is one, then change is more likely to land and is more likely to stick and deliver the benefits sought.  But, so often understanding of cultural readiness for change is no more than impressionistic – with little – if any, analysis, let alone structured responses to shape and evolve culture to become more change-ready over time. Learn more about your organisation’s capability and readiness for change by taking our Change Readiness Assessment.

5. It is possible to demystify culture

Finally, culture can matter in change programmes, to business and change leaders, because it doesn’t have to be a given.  There are ways of demystifying culture – making it more tangible, in order to plan and effect culture changes that work.  At our recent event we explored some of these models and approaches and a number of participants commented on how they ‘demystified’ culture and the ways in which it might be changed.  And if we can understand and shift something that impacts not just on the success of our change programmes but contributes to overall business performance, then why wouldn’t we be intentional about it?

This is the first of three blogs.  In the remaining two we’ll explore what we mean by culture – offering ways of thinking about and working with it – and flowing from that some ways to effect cultural change.  In the meantime, what do you think about the role that culture plays in change initiatives?  Have you worked with it?  Let us know what you think.

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