Culture Change in Three (Not-So-Simple) Steps


The power of organizational culture is profound, often playing an unseen but pivotal role in the success — or failure — of strategy implementation.

Consider, for example: If your culture tends to be risk-averse, how might that affect implementation of your newly-adopted advocacy strategy? If your culture places high value on top-down decision making and formal written communications, how could that hamper your strategic choice to pursue greater community engagement? If your culture is highly academic or research-oriented, how well prepared are you to execute your new customer service strategy?

It may be that your current culture is well aligned with your organizational strategy. If so, fantastic! But if, like many organizations, you find a disconnect that’s keeping you from being more effective, it might be time for some culture work.

Culture change is by no means easy — and it takes time — but it can be tackled in three principal phases: Assess, Design, and Create.

1. Assess your organizational culture.

To better understand your culture’s alignment with your strategy you must first clarify the attributes of your current culture. It’s often difficult for an organization to recognize its own culture, simply because it is so deeply ingrained as to have become invisible. Therefore, the process of identifying your culture is one of self-examination, questioning, and discussion.

Asking questions like these can help your organization begin to make its culture explicit.

  • Who is involved in decision making, and why?
  • How is authority expressed?
  • How is accountability ensured?
  • Is there openness to discussing challenges, or do difficult issues remain underground?
  • How is information shared and communicated throughout the organization?

This will begin to bring into focus the behaviors that express your culture on a daily basis. Once you have identified characteristics of your current culture, ask some critical questions, like:

  • How well does this culture serve us? What are its positive aspects? What are the negative or “shadow” aspects of this culture?
  • When and/or from where does this behavior originate, and does it still feel authentic and true, or is it a holdover from the past?
  • How well do these behaviors help us advance our chosen strategy? What kinds of behaviors do we need to manifest more frequently to be effective in our chosen strategy?

2. Design your ideal culture.

Working through the questions above should give you some insights into changes that would help you be more effective. Take time to describe what that aspirational culture would look like. What would be the observable attitudes and behaviors, the visual cues or shared rituals, the experience of your clients, staff, and other key stakeholders? Put all this into words (literally write it down!), in as much detail as you can.

Remember, culture change is not something the CEO, or even the full senior leadership team, can achieve while sequestered in an office somewhere; it requires leadership that balances top-down commitment with bottom-up engagement — if either is lacking, the effort will ultimately fail.

Build broad understanding and support for the change by co-defining not just what will be changing, but why it must change: We will develop our culture to look more like X so that we will be better able to achieve our strategy Y. It may also be helpful to visually chart the changes you seek to make. For example, on a continuum of hierarchy to holacracy, plot where you are at now and where you hope to move.

3. Create the change you seek.

Once you are clear about what needs to change, prioritize up to three actions you can make over the next three to six months to begin developing those desired features or traits. Choose these first steps thoughtfully. Select a change that is most likely to succeed, so that you can start with success. Also consider what change may help unlock or set in motion other changes that you want to see happen. Finally, make it something high-visibility to signal throughout the organization that you are serious and will follow through — and then by all means do follow through. Setting a culture change goal and then abandoning it through neglect, overwork, distraction, or carelessness will only make it that much harder for your next effort to achieve credibility.

Review progress regularly, by putting the culture work on the agenda for board meetings, senior team meetings, all-staff meetings, etc. Be sure to celebrate victories and do post-mortems on setbacks to learn what you might do differently, and as you make progress, keep setting the next goal. Remember, your old organizational culture was not formed in a day (or even weeks or months) — similarly, the new culture will take time become your new “way of doing things.”

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