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Why culture change matters

Your company’s culture is changing. It was changing yesterday and will be changing today, next week and next year. It’s like a flower garden subtly changing shape and colour throughout the year – if left untended, it may soon become unrecognisable.

Your company’s culture is changing. It was changing yesterday and will be changing today, next week and next year. It’s like a flower garden subtly changing shape and colour throughout the year – if left untended, it may soon become unrecognisable.

I often hear ‘we need to change our culture’. When digging deeper, I nearly always find it’s because the organisation has allowed its culture to change shape organically and unchecked. Covid and hybrid working, the war in Ukraine, energy processes and inflation, and (in the UK) Brexit have all provided the ideal conditions for company cultures to grow out of shape as the leadership teams wrestle with external forces.

So what do you do? Whether you’re embarking on a culture change to ‘get back in shape’ or another reason such as a merger or change of strategic direction, I’d recommend a very straightforward process to get things moving. I’ve ‘borrowed’ the three-stage model from Gerard Egan (2002).

Stage one – what’s the culture like now?
Finding out the actual lived experience of your culture can be a fascinating and sobering experience. It’s important to do this in a qualitative and quantitative way so you have an assessment based on data, enriched with a cross-section of opinions. This’ll mean combining cultural assessment survey results with comments gleaned from a cross-section of colleagues in one-to-one interviews and focus groups. Pretty much all of this can be done online or face-to-face but one thing that shouldn’t be underestimated is a physical culture review – when you walk around, what does what you see and hear tell you about the current culture?

Stage two – what do we ideally want the culture to be like?
Start with painting a picture of what you want your future culture to be. This must be rooted in your organisational vision, mission and strategy and involve as many people as possible at all levels. Later on, it’ll be much easier to motivate people to buy into the culture if as many people as possible feel they were co-creators of it. Within this picture, capture both values and the observable behaviours which’ll reflect this new (or ‘back in shape’) culture, as behaviours give a level of specificity that provide examples of what you actually want people to do. I’ve seen many examples of well-intended but vague and unhelpful culture descriptors! If you’re really daring, you might also want to define what behaviours you don’t want to see. One company I’ve worked with had a counter-behaviour of ‘Don’t be an a****le’. Of course, take great care that what you create can’t be weaponised or pointed at people!

Having a clear start and end point gives you the foundation to understand what needs to change and if it’s evolution or revolution that’s needed. You’ll also know which parts of the culture need preserving and which parts you need to leave behind. Now the actual work begins!

Stage three – action and momentum!
Culture is significantly influenced by the behaviour of senior leaders, so it’s vital to start with these people role-modelling new ways of working. It’s brilliantly engaging to build a culture change bottom-up but the action stage must start top-down.

Senior leaders sharing an aspirational culture story is a good starting point. An engaging cultural narrative that pulls together your vision, mission, strategy, values and behaviours will help people understand what needs to change and why. Telling it as a story is a great way to engage people and it’s also a perfect opportunity to thank people for their involvement as co-creators.

Once everyone has reflected on what the story means for them and their role, it’s time to burn the boats as there’s no going back from here. Communicating the culture change moves you off the start line but no further.

Your new culture will need constant focus and attention and everything needs to be aligned to it. From recruitment and performance management, to decision-making, look at all your processes and ensure they match your desired culture. Ask yourself questions such as, “Are we recruiting people with the right fit for the new culture?”, “Does our feedback system reflect the new values and behaviours?” and “Do we make decisions in a way that underpins our desired culture?”.

Your journey to changing culture may be a long and evolving one, so it’s vital to check progress along the way, making sure you don’t declare victory too early… if at all. The flower garden will always be growing, so will always need tending to.

Finally, here’s a couple of books you may find useful in understanding why culture change matters:

  • ‘Corporate Culture and Performance’ by John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett
  • ‘The Advantage: Why Organisational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business’ by Patrick Lencioni

References:
Egan, G. (2002). The skilled helper: A problem-management and opportunity-development approach to helping. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Kotter, J. P. (2011). Corporate Culture and Performance. Free Press.
Lencioni, P. (2012). The Advantage: Why Organisational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.
Jossey-Bass.

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