The Rugged Beauty of Culture Change

Changing culture is as much art as science. Organizations have many cultures – all supporting, reacting and consuming each other while taking energy from leadership, employees, vendors, and contractors. Culture is evasive, fluid, and viral.

An ocean coastline changes as the rain falls from above, tectonic plates move below, and waves and timeless tides chafe the sands and rocks along its edge. It can be explosive and delicate process at the same time.

Organization change likewise comes from leadership above, the movements from staff below or from outside the very organization. Organizational change is a complex landscape changed over time with applications of influence and resources.

While evolving a culture is the preferred choice for leadership, it is also the most complex.

The dynamics, perpetuating factors, and the carriers of the current culture must be studied and understood before necessary changes can be implemented.

Ed Schein, Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, states, ‘It is dangerous to oversimplify what content culture covers because of the illusion that one is managing culture when one is, in fact, managing only a manifestation of culture.’

The complexity is multiplied further because leaders of culture change are infected with the current culture as soon as they work to change it. Self-awareness and acknowledgment of cultural effects are critical to transition the organization to new beliefs and values.

The greater the number of individuals who have prior experience leading a cultural change project the better. There are too many dynamics for learning on the fly. Experience is paramount.

Although every culture change project is different, there are a few focus areas to improve the odds of success.

Paint as accurate a picture of the difficult journey ahead as possible

The stage must be set for courage. Establishing urgency does not come cheap. Constant efforts will be made to kill the project. And these efforts will crescendo in frequency and force with each success and as change targets come into view.

Commit to compassion in dealing with people and the necessary changes

Change is supremely difficult because it involves change to successes as well as failures. Deep change is akin to moving from the earth to the moon versus switching from one apartment to another (i.e., project management). Comfort levels are adversely affected with each change. The greater the degree to which a change impacts someone, the greater the decline in their comfort level. Compassion is critical to keep momentum: Mangled victims and bodies along the journey turn people against change.

Illicit individual commitments to the change process

The leaders of the organization need to be fully committed and own their commitment. Alexander the Great burned his boats on the shores of Persia before they began their victorious battle. A thousand years later, Hernán Cortés conquered the Yucatan Peninsula, a feat many had failed before, by calling for his men to burn their boats. Commitment is critical. There no greater let down than having victory in sight and the change process halted because a leader loses their nerve.

Pick clear and specific targets

Clear and specific targets are your navigation points for change. Without them, there is no feedback loop in place and no hope in sight.

Develop an action plan

As soon as you begin your change project, your plans unravel. Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800 –1891), Great General Staff of Prussian Forces 1871 to 1888 wrote, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” The hostile force, in this case, are the carriers of the current culture. They have the advantage of holding the fort and change leaders are arriving after a long and arduous journey.

Share the plans, process, and results early with as many as possible

One of the biggest changes in today’s world is the disseminate and access information. Never has the power to share and gather information been so readily available to everyone. It is harder than ever to keep secrets – this is advantageous. While leaders can become isolated and myopic in their vision because of cushions of privilege, the front line usually feels the immediate impact of negative status quo. The rank and file can be a huge ally and resource in orchestrating change.

Act, measure, reflect, adjust and continue the journey

This is the cycle keeping the momentum of change alive and moving. Mistakes will occur. Loses will occur. People will fail at implementation and results. Expect it. Corrections can be made. Surprising wins will occur. People will succeed and deliver results.

The key is to adjust and move forward with eyes on the target. It’s a rugged and beautiful journey.

© 2017 Jeffrey Hansler  All rights reserved

Jeffrey Hansler, CSP is an expert at organizational development, leadership, and persuasive communication which includes skills of innovation, influence, negotiation, sales, body language, micro-expressions, and authority. He may be reached at