10 Clear Principles for the 96% that Need Culture Change

If you want something new

I wrote a popular TLNT.com article about how 96% of respondents from a Strategy& / Katzenbach Center survey on culture and change management highlighted that culture change was needed in their organization in some form.  I criticized some of the over-simplified recommendations that accompanied the survey release but The Katzenbach Center came through with their recent high quality article and related video on 10 Principles for Leading Change Management.

All leaders need to understand these principles and it doesn’t matter if they are in a big corporation like General Motors or a small business on Main Street.

Culture is a complex topic that impacts every major change effort.  The critical elements of change efforts are cultural and learned so it’s important to learn from experts in this field to increase your effectiveness. It’s an extensive article that may seem overwhelming to some so I’ll bottom line the 10 Principles and clarify some aspects to help leaders in any size organization relate.

Three hurdles to overcome in change management

They initially highlighted three major hurdles to overcome with change management:

  1. Change fatigue – “the exhaustion that sets in when people feel pressured to make too many transitions at once. A full 65 percent of respondents to the Katzenbach survey reported this is a problem.”
  2. Sustainability – “companies lack the skills to ensure change can be sustained over time.”
  3. Lack of input from lower levels – “transformation efforts are typically decided upon, planned, and implemented in the C-suite, with little input from those at lower levels.”

The 10 principles

#1 – Lead with culture – They emphasized the need for leaders to “make the most of their company’s existing culture. Instead of trying to change the culture itself, they draw emotional energy from it.” Leaders should “look for the elements of culture that are aligned to the change, bring them to the foreground, and attract attention of the people who will be affected by the change.”

This advice is consistent with culture expert Edgar Schein’s insights to start with a business problem and to understand “there are always parts of the culture that help you solve the problem or hinder you.”  Leaders must realize they are undermining their change effort from the very start if they over-emphasize numerous changes that must be made without tapping into the strengths of the existing culture that support the change.

#2 – Start at the top – “Although it’s important to engage employees at every level early on, all successful change management initiatives start at the top, with a committed and well-aligned group of executives strongly supported by the CEO.”

It is imperative for the top team to be on the same page regarding both why the change is necessary and “the particulars for implementing it.”  The top leader or any member of the top team will dramatically undermine change efforts if they are directly or indirectly sending messages that are in conflict with the change effort. They must act in a different way that’s consistent with the change effort and visible to all.

 #3 – Involve every layer – “Mid-level and frontline people can make or break a change initiative. The path of rolling out change is immeasurably smoother if these people are tapped early for input on issues that will affect their jobs.”  They highlighted that “although it may take longer in the beginning, ensuring broad involvement saves untold headaches later on.”

This is an very important principle so I wish they had also emphasized two extremely important points about this involvement. First, the dynamics of the current culture will dramatically impact how open employees are to share their ideas and how they truly feel. It may take a number of formal and informal methods to build trust, surface ideas, and confirm ownership or buy-in to the specific improvement plans. Secondly, don’t’ just use broad feedback methods.  Do everything possible to prioritize as a team or in supporting groups. Loads of “ideas” shared in brainstorming sessions, surveys, or meetings that lead to top managers picking and choosing what to implement will not, in most cases, lead to the ownership required.

#4 – Make the rational and emotional case together – they emphasized how some businesses cover strategic business objectives like “we will enter new markets” or “we will grow 20 percent a year for the next three years” but they lack to “reach people emotionally in a way that ensures genuine commitment to the cause.”  They continued by highlighting that “human beings respond to calls to action that engage their hearts as well as their minds, making them feel as if they’re part of something consequential.”

I refer to this balance as clarifying the “why” for change efforts and making sure it’s both “logical and necessary.”  The logical portion is the rational case.  The “necessary” part ideally taps into the purpose and values of the organization to build that “emotional case” in a meaningful way. Think about the live culture case study playing out with GM ignition switch recall or the Veterans Administration Hospital wait time crisis. These major problems are surfacing much deeper cultural issues that are rocking these organizations to their very core. The case for change and plans may be logical. The sense of urgency and passion for acting differently in the future, no matter what new processes or procedures are implemented, will come from the emotional side of a shared purpose and values.

#5 – Act your way into new thinking - “Directives and incentives” will not necessarily cause a shift in behavior.  It’s far more critical to ensure “people’s daily behaviors reflect the imperative of change. Start by defining a critical few behaviors that will be essential to the success of the initiative.”  These new behaviors should be modeled by the top of the organization as a basis for others.

This principle is also extremely critical and I believe it’s where many change efforts go astray.  Their first principle was about leading with culture and primarily leveraging aspects of the existing culture that support the change effort.  This principle builds on that point but highlights the need to be very specific about the new behaviors that are necessary to support the change effort. Think about the GM culture crisis, what behavior must we see from GM managers to support a safe and effective environment where all employees feel comfortable proactively raising and taking ownership for resolving potential safety issues?  You must be very specific about expected behaviors so the general core value or improvement area isn’t interpreted differently across the organization. It will take time and practice to engrain the new behaviors.

#6 – Engage, engage, engage – “Powerful and sustained change requires constant communication, not only throughout the rollout but after the major elements of the plan are in place.” People should be engaged at all levels and in a variety of ways (town halls, team meetings, etc.).

Ongoing engagement is necessary for effective and sustainable change.  I like connecting this principle back to Principle Four – “involving every layer.”  It’s not sufficient to obtain some up-front feedback on priorities, include them in your plans, and neglect to specifically define habits or systems for ongoing feedback and prioritization. It’s not about one-way communication but emphasizing two-way communication so feedback on what’s working and what’s not working about a change effort is clear and openly communicated as a basis for refining plans together as a team.

#7 – Lead outside the lines - They emphasize the importance of involving and identifying “special forces.”  The power of these leaders is often “more informal and is related to their expertise, to the breadth of their network, or to personal qualities that engender trust.” I like to refer to these people as the key “influencers” or the “go to people” in organizations that people trust and navigate toward in times of change, uncertainty, or even fear.

I like to engage these informal leaders or “influencers” in two key areas beyond the definition of improvement priorities and plans where many others are involved.  First, they provide the “word” or the “buzz” about change efforts in order to understand how things are being interpreted and where adjustments are needed based on perception.  They will help you to proactively expose drama, rumors, questions, and concerns.  “Influencers” should also be involved to pre-review or provide other feedback on communication efforts in order to make sure they will be received by the broader team as intended, resolve key concerns or questions, and improve overall clarity.

#8 – Leverage formal solutions - “Persuading people to change their behavior won’t suffice for transformation unless formal elements—such as structure, reward systems, ways of operating, training, and development—are redesigned to support them.”

I was very happy to see this principle covered. Many leaders under-estimate how many areas of their current culture and related systems are reinforcing behavior.  It may be possible to gain some initial momentum without addressing these areas but the change will not be sustainable as priorities / pressures change and people come and go from the organization.

#9 – Leverage informal solutions – “Even when the formal elements needed for change are present, the established culture can undermine them if people revert to long-held but unconscious ways of behaving. This is why formal and informal solutions must work together.”  The “special forces” or informal leaders highlighted in principle seven should play a major part in helping to identify these informal actions.

#10 – Assess and adapt – “The Strategy&/Katzenbach Center survey revealed that many organizations involved in transformation efforts fail to measure their success before moving on.” It’s important for leaders to “take the time to find out what’s working and what’s not, and to adjust their next steps accordingly.”

Focus groups and surveys may help in this effort. I like taking the attitude that the change effort is never “done.” Projects may be completed but new issues emerge and continuous improvements are always possible when major transformations are involved. The associated business measure(s) must improve and a new standard of behavior must be consistently exhibited based on internal and, in some cases, external feedback.

One Final Comment

Do I really have to understand and apply all 10 Principles? Yes – learn from them, understand the insights from other experts, apply them in a connected way, and you’ll dramatically increase your chance of meaningful and sustainable change.  It’s important for change efforts to include enough fundamentals to reach the “culture tipping point” where momentum and results accelerate.  Learn from the experience of others and accelerate your progress and results.

Do you agree with these principles and which one stands out to you? What’s missing and what other insights can you provide? Please enter a comment below.

Like the content? Sign up for more…It’s FREE!

Our Privacy Guarantee: Your e-mail address will never be shared with anyone else. Education only, no selling of products or services.

Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of CultureUniversity.com and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®

He authored the 2014 book - Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. View his free and thorough culture on-demand webinar titled Culture Clarity, Speed & Results. He previously led major culture transformations as an senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm.

He has the rare mix of extensive operations, general management, and consulting experience necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. Leaders are fighting an uphill battle if they don't understand the subject of culture and how it can help them deliver results. Email him to learn more and take the first step.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.bouty.net Laurent Bouty

    Tx Tim, great advice. I don’t know where you could put it but I think quick wins are important for engaging people.

    • http://www.talentcove.com TalentCove

      We wholeheartedly agree with you, Laurent! It’s always helpful to recognize the quick, sometimes smaller, wins when working towards larger goals.

      – Lolly

  • Tim Kuppler

    Absolutely Laurent! I think people underestimate just how critical quick wins are to building momentum, interest, energy, and support. Too often organizations go after a broad change effort without being very specific about an initial area of focus or first phase of improvement. Time and attention is spread out instead of being directed at a top priority where the organization could see some initial progress.

    You could apply all 10 principles but the pace could be too slow or disconnected to quick wins and never make it over the tipping point where understanding and support of the change grows, resulting in further momentum and results.

  • http://www.corporatespring.com Annicken R. Day

    Hi Tim,

    Thank you for a really great article! I think it captured everything that in my experience determines whether a culture change effort is successful or not.

    Having worked with culture from the inside of mid-sized and large organizations for 12 years, I have definitely learned my lessons by experience (and mistakes!) and I agree that each of these 9 principles need to be in place in order to achieve the wanted outcomes… I also totally agree that there is no “end-game” in this. Change is the only constant and organizations are living breathing organisms that constantly need to change too. In my experience change can even be fun, when people understand why, feel involved and engaged with it and experience the change as a team-effort that is driven bottoms-up as well as top-down. I think it is important to celebrate small and big wins on the way; there is a lot of truth in the Chinese proverb “Roads are made for traveling”. When the journey is enjoyable, the positive energy it unleashes will fuel the team’s motivation to continue to drive change, sometimes way beyond what was the original “change-management plan”. Then change becomes a part of the culture and not “a change initiative to solve an existing problem”. Organizations and teams that get to that place have a huge advantage in a quickly changing world!

    From my own experience (and mistakes); the times we failed in making successful culture shifts was when management decided that it was the employees that needed to change while they themselves would just carry on as before, or when employees felt that changes were decided way over their head and implemented without them even understanding why. I also sometimes underestimated people’s fear of change, need of staying within their comfort zones and lack of trust in the good intentions behind changes initiated from the top.

    “Change fatigue” has definitely been a challenge in many of the teams I’ve worked with, sometimes one could hear the sarcastic laughter when a leader came with another change-management plan or a new organizational charts. When that happened, I coached those leaders into taking a step back, involve people, start with “Why” and then spend a lot of time on the “hows” together with the team, agreeing on what it would take for them to collectively stretch towards that big “Why”. I have on numerous occasions met with teams that didn’t even know why they existed or what they were trying to achieve, they were just focused on tasks at hand and to-do-lists without seeing how (or if) it fitted into a bigger purpose or goal. When people got a bigger vision and understanding of why they did what they did, not only did the light go on in their eyes but changes started happening, smoothly and effortlessly, as they started connecting reason with action. Awareness, alignment and reasons truly do wonders for changing culture.

    When we are able to shift how people think (e.g. “do we spend our energy on problems or on finding solutions”), day-to day behaviors, priorities and actions actually can change overnight. I usually say that engaging people around change really is no rocket science but very much based on simple human psychology and a good dose of common sense – we just need to bring those two things a bit more into the corporate worlds!

    Thank you again. I signed up for your newsletters and look forward to reading more from you and Culture University!

    All the best,

    Annicken R. Day
    Founder & CEO
    Corporate Spring

    http://www.corporatespring.com

    • Tim Kuppler

      Thank you Annicken for your detailed feedback! It appears like we have some similar experiences with culture. I couldn’t agree more with the common sense approach. If individual contributors don’t understand the “why” and how it’s connected to their own work making a difference then top leaders are making things far more difficult than they should be.

      I checked out your site and love your content. Ben Zander was a nice surprise and reminded me how much I love some of his insights. I used his Art of Possibility video (I think that was the title) with most salaried employees 10-15 years ago. The common sense insights always seem to be useful.

  • http://www.wiefling.com Kimberly Wiefling

    Thanks for your valuable and practical article, Tim! In my experience “Leading Outside the Lines” is often underutilized. Leadership isn’t the same as management, and the people at the top of the organization are not necessarily the most influential leaders. Recognizing and including the “networked interconnected communities” (NICs) in the cultural change is vital to the success of any change initiative. And these NICs may include suppliers, customers, government and regulatory agencies, alliance partners, the families of employees, and the communities in which the organization operates. As a result the org chart is not a useful guide to the real teams and communities that need to be engaged in organizational culture change. A stakeholder analysis can be a valuable guide to identifying the “BIG WHO” to include in a change initiative.

    • Tim Kuppler

      Thank you for the comments Kimberly. You raise some excellent points about the scope of the NICs, as you call them, extending externally. I think it is important to logically sequence and prioritize the involvement of these groups so there is focus. There might be some surprises about the parts of an extended network that could truly make a difference but the key internal influencers and the most critical external stakeholders need to be involved early in the process.

      I used to go out to interview our top customers early in any top leadership role so I could primarily listen and prioritize their feedback. The dialogue would change to giving them a preview of changes in-progress so they could give their feedback and truly influence the process. Under-selling early but committing to meaningful change paid off in the end as they became some of our greatest advocates.

      Families and communities are critical at some point if there is a genuine interest in meaningful impact. Family involvement is a little easier with recognition activities and events. Community involvement, especially volunteering, helps reinforce the type of self-less team behaviors I liked to see but that focus was more difficult in some parts of the world.

      • http://www.wiefling.com Kimberly Wiefling

        Delighted to hear your comments, and I truly appreciate your commitment to transformational change in Our World. Thanks!