How to change your organization’s culture

Gerstner Quote

Editor’s Note: This post was a very popular post on Switch & Shift and was adapted to include Edgar Schein’s personal meeting room video.

It’s like being lost in the wilderness if you initiate any major change effort in your organization without specifically knowing how cultures effectively evolve or change. It’s one of the greatest leadership challenges, but few truly understand how cultures evolve.

Why don’t most people know how cultures evolve or change?

Culture is a hot topic and it’s all over the popular press whether it’s guidance on “creating” a great culture or coverage of the latest culture crisis. Unfortunately there’s a massive gap between the 86% of executives that think culture is critical to business success and the 51% of employees that think their “culture needs a major overhaul“ (Strategy& global assessment). This gap is further supported by the 13% of employees that are engaged (Gallup) and the 30% of employees that identify with their organization’s purpose (Deloitte).

Why does this “culture chasm” exist between awareness and effective action? I believe there are three reasons:

  1. The popular press is flooded with “culture experts” of every form sharing their tips, keys, and levers for creating the culture of your dreams.  Sorry, culture doesn’t work that way. I was frustrated with the prevalence of that content so CultureUniversity.com was created with initial support from some of the top culture thought leaders in history. 
  2. Leadership development content does not adequately address the subject of culture. Leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. Some providers of leadership development understand this and their content is packed with culture-related insights. Most miss the mark and the word culture doesn’t even make it in their marketing materials and detailed course descriptions.
  3. Our educational system has failed us in producing leaders that understand the subject of culture. Once again, some institutions do a great job, but it’s extremely rare to run across any individual that has been taught the points we’ll cover in this article. #1 and #2 above aren’t helping anything. The common sense points in this article should resonate with most since we have all experienced the power of culture in many forms (as employees, consumers, etc.).

 We Need a Compass to Navigate the Culture Wilderness
You don’t need to be a survivalist like Bear Grylls to navigate the culture wilderness with confidence. He’ll even use a compass to make sure he is moving in the right direction. You need a general guide and it starts with understanding four specific insights about workplace culture:

    1. Focus on business challenges, problems, or goals and how culture is helping and holding back results versus “general culture improvement work.” Edgar Schein, arguably the #1 culture thought leader in the world, said working directly on culture isn’t the best path because “culture can be a bottomless pit and a big waste of time.”  See Edgar Schein’s first “Personal Meeting Room” contribution to CultureUniversity.com where he explains what culture is and reinforces this point about being very specific regarding culture change.

  1. Results are necessary in some form for any new cultural attribute to form. If the people in the organization don’t see results then they will eventually stop any new behavior associated with a change effort. There needs to be some learning, especially at the start, as part of any major change effort so people connect any new or revised behavior with results. It’s of course ideal if the results support the purpose of the organization and each individual feels a connection to that impact. You need to think about undisputed business / organizational results (growth, profitability, customer satisfaction, etc.) so that’s why the #1 point was focusing on a specific problem, challenge, or goal.
  2. Be very specific about any values or behaviors you want to shift, change, or see more consistently. Ideally focus in on 1-3 very specific behaviors. Clarify the specific expected behaviors that will positively impact the problem, challenge, or goal (these could be in some area of collaboration, accountability, organization, or countless other areas depending on your unique problem and current behavior). You must be very specific.
  3. A support structure is needed to sustain any new behavior so it eventually becomes imbedded in the cultural DNA. The ultimate test is whether the new behavior will stay in place as people come and go from the organization and new challenges and priorities emerge.  Culture change is like turning a ship on autopilot. Behavior is reinforced in countless ways across an organization and it helps if there is a “framework in which to operate” that reinforces the new and very specific behaviors (think strategy, structure, people, processes & rewards).

The Culture Lens

The culture lens may help with understanding how these four important insights connect as you refine your current strategies and plans to deliver improved results based on your unique culture.

  • It starts with focus on a specific performance priority, challenge, or goal. This focus is far more effective than broad-based action and increases the likelihood results will be achieved.
  • Define your specific behavioral strengths (how culture is helping) and no more than 1-3 very specific behavioral weaknesses (how culture is holding back performance) with how people work together on the specific performance priority, challenge, or goal.
  • Revise your work related to the align and manage areas (strategies, goals, measures, management systems, communication habits and motivation) based on using extensive and repeated feedback and prioritization to support the behavior shift. This work is targeted on the performance priority, challenge, or goal and not general improvements.

The Culture Lens Detail

Part two of this post will cover more detail on these align and manage areas because the work is obviously very challenging but the focus on a specific priority, challenge, or goal is critical. Leadership and the entire organization learns from the initial focus on a specific performance priority, challenge, or goal and applies the insights to work on other priorities or, in some cases, to broad-based improvements.

Culture Work is Not Simple

There’s an interest by many to make culture change sound simple. Even those that know better end up adding to the long list of articles on culture tips, keys, and levers.

The reality is that true culture change is hard and it requires sustained effort to have any chance of success. Most efforts will fail and will not include work that covers the four insights about how cultures evolve. It’s typically due to broad-based action versus initial focus on a specific business priority, challenge, or goal in order to deliver results.

The Culture Paradox

The good news is that a Culture Paradox exists: initial actions related to culture change are often the fastest route to performance improvement.  Huh, I thought sustainable culture change is hard and takes time? Absolutely, but the initial work to 1) focus on a specific problem, challenge, or goal and 2) repeatedly engage your organization in 3) identifying and changing specific things that have been “holding back performance” can produce rapid results.

It’s extremely motivating to “finally” begin addressing issues that likely have been a problem for a long time (since they were cultural in nature) and to go at it with extensive involvement in order to build ownership. Check out this free and thorough on-demand webinar on Culture Clarity, Speed and Results to learn more.

Do you agree with these insights on how cultures evolve and the importance of initial focus on a specific problem, challenge, or goal instead of broad-based action? What else have you learned that’s important to share? Please comment below.

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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 leads collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society.

Human Synergistics is home of the Organizational Culture Inventory, the most widely used and heavily researched culture assessment in the world, and the Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, the premier organizational culture event.

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. Learn from the very thorough culture on-demand webinar. He previously led major culture transformations as a 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 is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Inc.com.

His 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top mission / performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and share the latest insights across many experts. Email him to learn more about CultureU or Human Synergistics.

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