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Changing organizational culture one step at a time

4 min read

Changing organizational culture one step at a time

Changing organizational culture is easier than you think. Here's a step-by-step guide.

When I talk to leaders about workplace culture, most of them will quickly acknowledge its importance. A lot of them are keen to make improvements—to work on a set of posters for core values or start a new “Taco Tuesday” program.

But the minute I start to get serious about culture change—about how we’re going to make genuine and meaningful changes—they start to backpedal. They say it’s too hard, or it takes too long. They’ll get to it later, when they have the time or resources.

I understand. Changing organizational culture can seem scary. It can be hard work and take some time (though honestly, not as long as you think). But it’s not something you put off until later. Here’s why.

Don’t be afraid of culture change

Every day you put off working on changing your culture, your company culture is changing and morphing anyway. That’s simply how culture works. So, you have a clear choice: (a) you can intentionally shape your culture so it’s aligned with what makes you successful; or (b) you can let it evolve on its own and take your chances.

Smart organizations choose the first option, and that means embracing culture change. The next section of this article will walk you through the process of how to do this, using a real-life example to demonstrate.

Step 1: Understand your culture

The first step is to get a clear picture of what your culture truly is. You’d be amazed at how many leaders cannot clearly define their culture. I’m not talking about vague terms like “we’re a family here,” or “we’re all about results.” I mean, how does your culture demonstrate and achieve transparency, agility, innovation, and inclusion?

We’ve been researching the ongoing shift in leadership and management over the last 10 years, and those terms have been emerging as critical factors in determining how evolved your culture is towards the “future of work.” You don’t have to be totally futurist on all of them, but you need to know where you stand.

Here’s an example: We recently worked with a nonprofit organization that went through a process to assess their culture. They discovered that their employees found the organization to be relatively traditional in their approach to transparency. As with most things in business, their experience wasn’t black and white. It was nuanced:

They felt that information shared internally was generally credible, but they also felt that the organization didn’t work hard to create mechanisms to share information broadly to the staff. They felt that people’s default was to keep information private, rather than making it open.

Step 2: Align your culture with what drives your success

Once you’ve achieved that clearer picture of your culture, you’ve taken a strong first step. The next step is to start aligning that with what makes you successful. So many organizations skip this step, but it’s crucial to ensure your organizational culture change is relevant.

In the case of the nonprofit, they’d been getting feedback from their customers and stakeholders that the nonprofit had become slow. The stakeholders used to rely on the materials the nonprofit was producing to stay ahead of key developments in their field, but these days the products they were releasing were almost out of date as soon as they hit the streets. So for this particular group, speed was a big issue.

When they looked at their transparency issues with this problem of “speed” in mind, the nonprofit generated an important insight: The employees’ experience of a lack of information sharing was not actually rooted in any kind of information hoarding.

Instead, it was based on the fact that in their culture, they had become accustomed to having many different people and departments involved in most of the important decision making. When you’ve got five decision makers in every meeting, it’s likely that several of them will feel they don’t have enough information to make a good decision, simply because it’s outside of their job description to know that information.

This resulted in even more meetings and more repeated information sharing, all of which led to a slower pace of work. While their intentions were good—let’s make sure we include people internally in decision making—the impact was hurting organizational results (by making them too slow) and culture (by causing people to feel ill-informed).

Step 3: Take real action

The next step is to make a change. A real change. This is exactly what the nonprofit did. They didn’t do it by creating new posters to put on the wall or increasing the number of staff parties. They simply wrote a “Playbook” of culture change “plays” that would start to move the needle in key areas.

For them, given what they’d learnt about their team culture of having too many cooks in the kitchen, they wrote up a series of plays that focused on decision making and project management.

Now, for all projects, they have a process for clarifying who gets to make the decision (responsible), whose opinion must be considered before a final decision is made (consulted), and who’s simply informed about the decision (informed). This meant they could actually reduce the amount of information being shared—yet still see an increase in speed and reduction of people feeling uninformed.

In addition to changing these project management processes, they also decided to provide training on conflict resolution and delivering feedback, as their culture of conflict avoidance was also slowing their pace of work.

Conclusion: changing organizational culture for good

In a nutshell, that’s how to change organizational culture. You identify what needs to be valued in your culture in order to drive your success. Then, you change things like structure, process, and internal skills to make sure you get the right behavior to achieve ongoing success .

Some of your other changes might go deeper, like the way you hire or handle performance management, but they follow the same basic pattern—make conscious changes in how you do things to reinforce the culture that drives your success.

As you implement these changes, you should measure your progress so you can show everyone internally exactly why your culture is shaped the way it is. You’re not selling your culture to them. You’re just showing them why your culture is the way it is. Once they have this clarity, the change becomes much easier because it makes sense.

About the author

Jamie Notter is a partner at WorkXO Solutions, a culture management firm that uses culture analytics and innovative consulting to drive company growth. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences, and culture change to his work with leaders around the world. Author of two books (When Millennials Take Over, andHumanize), Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

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