Success in Organizational Change: Work with Culture Instead of Against It

Hot Air Balloon

Photo Credit: David Cosand, Flickr – altered with quote

Organizational change programs often don’t deliver as promised; and that’s not only because they don’t align with the current culture. Many programs still have an industrial-age mindset. The ingredients: a linear view (reality can be planned for and big change requires big efforts), designed by an executive team (who order the others what to change), and rolled out top-down, creating resistance as expected – because it deviates from “the way people are used to do things around here.” Old-style change initiatives don’t make abstract values operational nor do they translate simple slogans into personal behavioral change. They don’t include and engage people to share their information and energy to co-create meaningful, practical change.

What if you let go of this old approach and mindset?

  • Embrace inclusiveness: have everyone contribute and co-create practical change.
  • Complexity: no rigid control but self-organization within boundaries.
  • Non-linearity: change one small habit at a time to create a lasting, different outcome.
  • Systems theory: entice a critical mass to change behaviors until the organization as a whole reaches a tipping point.
  • Emergent qualities: discover profits and opportunities that you couldn’t have foreseen or planned.

Copy in change circles
I started working with organizational culture because I wanted to make a difference, not just a living. Culture can be a major roadblock to change: pulling people back to their comfortable ways of doing and thinking. People in groups tend to copy, coach, and correct one another to keep things safe and the same. Why not use this powerful copy-mechanism in groups to practice new ways of doing and thinking?

People hold the key to successful organizational change because they personally have to change typical behaviors, beliefs, and meaning – or nothing will change at all.

My approach to sustainable change is to engage all employees in small teams. Within these change circles, 10 people work on the “what” and the “how” of change, take ownership of their part (instead of obeying to top-down orders), while they benefit from peer support to really DO change and stick with it (even when it’s uncomfortable and tempting to go back to old habits). This is what I call “inclusive change,” excluding no one.

 
Culture starting point
To help people become aware of what needs to change on the people side, I often use the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI – developed by Cameron and Quinn) that quickly maps culture. Other surveys may work but the point is to create a shared reference to get people working on beliefs and behaviors – and a validated survey displays the collective experience instead of luring people into a discussion. Focus groups or discussions about some topics may lead to statements like: “That’s not true – that’s just your opinion!” With a survey, we can have a dialogue about what the collective culture profile could mean for all of us.

I use workshops or change circles to hold a dialogue about the “Why and What” but especially about the “How” of change. People discover the typical beliefs and behaviors that make up current culture: we translate generalist values into specific, daily behaviors and underlying assumptions that are specific for this team or organization.

Together, we assess our future challenges and goals and discover which culture would be the most effective to help us change and reach our goals. We think of which crucial behaviors and beliefs will make the difference to success.
A fascinating part in this dialogue process is to engage in the puzzle of “how to change our daily habits” to help the organizational system change toward the preferred culture and outcome of change.

The “How” is different for each organization. This is the part organizations like to outsource:

  • “Just tell us what to do so we become more innovative.”
  • “Give us a list of things to check and steps to follow.”
  • “Tell my employees to take ownership so this culture of complaints will cease.”

The real work is to trace those particular details that will make a difference in your organizational system. An outside expert consultant can’t tell you. Your people will find the tipping point, the “viral” habits, what must change – if you engage them in change circles.

Engaging, empowering teamwork
Even if a CEO has a clear idea of the What and How, they can’t order the others to change. People need to see it for themselves, commit to the change, or they might not do it. We need people to take ownership of necessary behaviors. The circles of 10 are small enough to foster real dialogue, to take the time to solve obstacles or reflect on objections and create commitment because no one can hide in a small team. Small circles work with peer support, once trust is secured. If you don’t agree, your coworkers will notice. There’s no hiding in a large audience while the CEO gives a speech on stage. There is no secretive criticizing because in a circle, people talk to each other, not about each other. A seasoned group leader can facilitate this process.

If a change circle works well – the ten people in the group will know more than one. Together, they solve the how-to puzzle – while eliminating obstacles, influencing each other’s objections and thus together changing beliefs. They commit to the change, while they support each other to really do it and change behaviors over time. It may take more time up front, but it yields more results in the end.

Putting it all together
Culture is visible as “the way we do things around here” but also contains the tacit assumptions, meanings, and automated group interaction patterns. It’s a reason why organizational change programs fail. By working with and on culture, you address the way people act and think so that they become aware and can ultimately change behaviors and beliefs. To visualize and discover values, assumptions, criteria, beliefs and behaviors, I use a culture survey while others may use different feedback approaches. It is an easy starting point for working on culture and change, first in workshops (understanding the outcome of the culture survey), next in Change Circles where people take ownership of developing their own workplace culture and change together.

Questions:
How could you apply this in your organization?
Where do you tend to follow an old-style approach?
Where can you let go?
How can inclusiveness and co-creation revitalize your organization’s change, culture and results?
What do you doubt about, when you read this?
How could you experiment to see if your doubt is realistic?

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Marcella Bremer is an author, culture & change consultant and energizer for the workplace. She helps leaders, consultants and professionals make a difference at work by positive leadership, inclusive change and cultures of kindness. She co-founded OCAI online (that provides Cameron & Quinn’s validated Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) online) where she teaches consultants and leaders how to utilize this tool as well as consults with organizations in change. She also co-founded “Kikker Groep” consultancy for organization and people development (in the Netherlands) and Leadership & Change Magazine – to help professionals make a difference at work. She published two books, the latest is “Organizational Culture Change: Unleash your Organization’s Potential in Circles of 10”.

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