Whether due to toxic culture, ineffective leadership, poor results from an employee engagement survey, lack of trust or high levels of attrition, many organizations will find themselves asking how to strategize culture change at some point. But even the most well-crafted strategy is no match for entrenched cultural norms. As the popular saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
I describe organizational culture as a messy web of systems, processes, roles, communication practices, assumptions, attitudes, goals and personalities. Oh, and there isn’t just one culture. Depending on the size of your organization, there could be thousands across departments (which is perfectly normal). Culture is embedded in every aspect of the organizational system. Every little change within the system has repercussions — some obvious and others less so; some immediate and others long-term. As a result, organizational culture change cannot happen on its own.
Leading Culture Change
Organizational culture changes only through a series of small adjustments over time. It is not a short-term campaign involving a couple of emails, a fancy slogan and an all-staff meeting. And you’re most likely to succeed when you’re not just doing it in reaction to an emergency, such as unexpected attrition or harassment complaints.
The most important element in predicting successful change is leadership buy-in. As the leader of the organization, ask yourself these three questions before motivating any culture-change initiative:
Are you serious about this?
Are you prepared to accept that you may be the problem?
Are you comfortable accepting that there is not one culture, but rather many subcultures that may need to change within your organization?
If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then you’re ready to lead organizational change.
The 8-Step Plan for Culture Change:
To change organizational culture, your goal should be to create a broad business strategy that doesn’t crush the existing culture — but rather aligns the various subcultures toward a common goal. In my experience, I’ve found changing organizational culture to be an 8-step process that can take years.
Organizational culture changes only through a series of small adjustments over time. It is not a short-term campaign involving a couple of emails, a fancy slogan and an all-staff meeting.
- Evaluate and define current culture (or cultures): Split the group into logical subsections, such as by department or by team, to workshop the various cultural definitions. Have the subsections answer the question: What outcomes is the current culture creating and what outcomes are we striving for?
- Create a broad business strategy that aligns subcultures with a common goal: Leverage the leadership team to understand where the organization is headed culture-wise.
- Establish values and expected behaviors for your ideal future culture: Not only do you need to know where the organization is going, but also how you want to get there. What values define the way your organization does work?
- Map out the systemic enablers and blockers toward your ideal future culture(s): What aspects of your processes, roles and structure enable the team to act out the desired culture and what aspects block your team? For example, do you aim to be an agile organization but customer discounts require five levels of approval? Perhaps you have a systemic blocker to agility.
- Implement any changes identified in the process: Which obstacles can you remove for your team and what enablers can you implement? Create project teams to tackle the list one by one. Create diverse groups of teams based on specialty and need.
- Have employees define personal goals to support the process: Every employee should have an individual development plan that ties their personal goals to the organization’s mission. Hopefully, these already exist within your organization, but they will need to be updated once the new strategy is in place.
- Track and measure progress toward the new organizational culture: A task force can be responsible for tracking changes and measuring progress with a dashboard of relevant metrics. For example, if your ideal culture is to become more collaborative internally, how can collaboration be measured to track progress?
- Communicate the wins, rinse, repeat: The most important part of the process is communicating change and wins, which allows the team to understand progress is being made in their best interest.
This culture change process requires opening up a series of intense and probably uncomfortable dialogues with stakeholders across the organization. It is through this dialogue that a clear strategy for change can evolve. Culture may eat strategy for breakfast but strategy is just the nutrition that culture needs to grow big and strong.