Why it’s time for a new definition of culture (and 5 steps for really changing it)

A new definition of culture (and 5 steps for really changing it)

Attempts to change culture simply by forcing changes in behaviour and hoping are doomed when using traditional definitions of culture, writes Jon Williams

Culture appears to mean many different things to different people. But however you look at it, it is commonly regarded as the biggest handbrake on organisational execution. It stops change from happening.

A large part of the issue with culture is the belief that somehow you can “control” it, when in fact all you can really hope to do is influence it. And in our experience most organisations struggle to even effectively describe culture, let alone shift it – so it should hardly be surprising that it holds them back.

Whilst there are many ways you can describe your current or future culture – a long narrative statement, pithy characterisations, thumbprints, imprints, brightly coloured wheels and more – our view is that how you describe your current and aspirational culture is really up to what works for you and your organisation. Creating a common language is definitely key. But, however you choose to describe your culture, spending time and effort changing it is much more important.

To unpick how to shift, not just describe, culture we need to first go back to what we mean by culture. Probably the most commonly used description of culture in the business literature is the good old “how we do things around here”.

We like the simple, descriptive nature of this and if you are just seeking to describe the “what” of culture, it is great. Unfortunately it overlooks the “why” of culture – why is it that these are the things we do around here? Without understanding the why it is hard to drive change. In fact, the adoption of this simple model has led to the prevalence of culture change advice that essentially says “change the behaviours and eventually the underlying causes will change to line up with the new behaviours”.

“You have to address both the “invisible” patterns of thought as well as the “visible” patterns of behaviour”

A form of cognitive dissonance therapy for organisations I guess – if I am now behaving differently, I must believe something different too. Appealingly simple, but unlikely to work often in the complex adaptive environment that is a modern organisation.

Instead we prefer to think of culture as “enduring patterns of thought, that lead to repetitive patterns of behaviour”.

Once you have this description it becomes clear why attempts to change culture simply by forcing changes in behaviour and hoping are doomed. We believe that you have to address both the “invisible” patterns of thought as well as the “visible” patterns of behaviour.

This requires three steps. First, help your people to understand why we need to do things differently; second, show them how they specifically need to behave differently; and third, make changes in the controllable parts of your organisation (systems, processes, policies) to reinforce the new why and how.

What does this look like practically?
With your most senior leaders – who set the example for everyone else in the organisation, you have to genuinely understand their underlying thoughts and beliefs and align those to your desired direction. In an ideal world you would hire leaders who are already aligned to your desired culture and just let them go for it. However, nearly all organisations are captive to the hiring and promotion decisions of the past – with leaders randomly collected over time. We stick to the age-old advice in this situation – if you can’t change the leaders, you need to change your leaders.

With the middle of the organisation, communicate the “why” relentlessly and over multiple formats but also pick a few key behaviours and develop managers’ ability to role model and develop these behaviours in others.

“We stick to the age-old advice in this situation – if you can’t change the leaders, you need to change your leaders”

And at the organisation level keep looking at your key symbols – processes, systems, policies and ask the tough question: “if this is supposed to be what we think and do, why are we still organised/managed/run in this way?”

One of the most common situations we encounter with new clients is this. They’ve workshopped organisational purpose and come down to a neat statement, their values have been through multiple rounds of review and are now settled and “launched”, consultants and internal teams have pored over market trends and financial data and developed a kick-ass industry-beating strategy and everyone from the CEO to the front-line has attended an alignment session so they know what they need to do to ensure personal, team and organisation success.

And yet, and yet, financial performance and progress on the execution of the strategic pillars still lags where it needs to be. Why? Well, in most cases it’s because of the single biggest impediment to successful strategy execution – the culture.

Top 5 tips for culture change

Changing culture is notoriously hard. Our guide to how to do it revolves around these five basic principles:

  • Know your starting point – articulate a clear, realistic understanding of current mindsets and the patterns of behaviour that they produce – but be prepared to focus more effort on shifting culture than describing it.
  • Don’t look at culture in isolation – it is part of system that includes Purpose, Values and Strategy and must have a measurable outcome that will sustain the effort – improved safety, quicker product cycles, better execution.
  • Your CEO has to be the chief coach. Your senior leaders are those most likely to derail (or champion!) your desired culture.
  • Don’t sweat too much of the small stuff – pick some big, symbolic culture change symbols and execute them rigorously. And repeatedly. And consistently.
  • Keep asking yourself and others the tough organisational question, “if our culture is supposed to be X, why do we keep doing Y?”

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