Getting Culture Change Started

Across the world, organizations are reckoning with who they must become when there is some form of return from the pandemic; triggering a global need for culture change support and guidance

When we begin a coaching conversation with a leader taking on a new challenge, we often evoke the image of crossing a turbulent river to illustrate their upcoming journey as we ask, “What’s to be found or gained by reaching the other side? What can you leave behind now to ease the burden of the crossing? Whose help might you need? And ultimately, who do you want to be when you emerge on the other side of this journey?”

It’s a bit hokey, sure, but it always elicits a meaty conversation about growth and transformation. Some form of that conversation is happening all over the world right now, not just at the individual level, but for whole organizations as they reckon with some form of return after the pandemic. At NOBL, all of our clients are grappling with who they must become; some are reacting to dramatic changes to their industry due to COVID, others are wisely using the moment to accelerate changes needed long before the world went into lockdown. In both cases, these organizations are asking themselves deep questions not only about their products and operating models, but of their organizational cultures: How must we show up together to bring about sustained transformation? What must change about what we value from one another? What do we want to retain from this era of being forced to try new tools and new ways of working? 

This is a true watershed moment for organizational culture, perhaps even a great awakening. When we founded NOBL in 2014, culture was still largely considered “soft and fuzzy,” a thing for only HR to focus on, and something that executives felt could be changed with pithy slogans and ping-pong tables. Today, culture is increasingly seen as essential to fulfilling the business model itself. Ways of working, behaviors, and norms are talked about in boardrooms, changes are spearheaded by CEOs, and project budgets increasingly recognize the complexity of the task. Organizations are far better educated and sober about the river crossing to come.

This week in the MIT Sloan Management Review, under the title “Why Every Executive Should Be Focusing on Culture Change Now” the authors argue:

“The pandemic accelerated three interlinked types of transformation affecting every industry: the adoption of digital technologies, the development of new business models, and the implementation of new ways of working. Most companies are now engaged in one or more of these types of transformation. […] Companies cannot realize the true potential of digital transformation, embrace new business models, or implement new ways of working without supporting changes in organizational behaviors and norms.” 

For organizations setting out on the journey of changing their cultures, we offer a “Getting Started” guide based on our own work and writing.

Getting Started on Culture Change

  1. Among your leaders, ensure you have a shared understanding and working definition of what “culture” is. Because culture is complex, leaders can talk endlessly about the issue without ever knowing if they are aligned with their peers. You don’t need a perfect definition, just one that articulates the possible playing field for change. Here’s our definition as a starting point
  2. Develop a shared language around the changes you want to make. Do you want to become more “customer-obsessed” or “agile” or “efficient” or “mentoring”? There are many, many models and topologies out there for organizational culture and all of them are reductive and even wrong (afterall, culture is complex). However, some are useful. We use The Competing Values Framework and have found it quite useful in helping leaders articulate the kind of culture(s) they aim to foster. Moreover, we believe it helps identify the fundamental connection between market strategies and organizational culture; there’s a reason why the leaders in most markets have a unique (for their market) and focused organizational culture. Don’t just pick words or directions from a hat, focus on what your market and customers need.
  3. Even before you embark on any changes, educate yourself on how culture change is felt and dealt with emotionally. People don’t resist change, they resist loss. And even the best changes can still trigger loss-avoidance behaviors. The goal of understanding loss is to keep change resistance low throughout the process; ensuring greater speed of adoption. However, expect your people to self-select into champions, fence-sitters, or cynics; and have a plan for responding to each group’s needs (especially the cynics). Lastly, the value of psychological safety during change cannot be overstated. You must make it safe for your folks to try new things, or no culture change is possible.
  4. As you start to share the narrative for change, don’t obsess over attitudes and mindsets, focus instead on the behaviors you wish to see from your people. Articulate the change (e.g. “from internally oriented to customer obsessed”) through key behaviors you either want to see adopted (e.g. “start weekly customer testing”) or extinguished (e.g. “stop making decisions based on internal silos”). Avoid launching a change communications effort too early, as they often over promise or try to cheerlead, which can lead to increased skepticism or cynicism. 
  5. Approach new behaviors through a “minimum viable product” lens. Instead of focusing on what perfect might look like, identify the first step to take that can be trained and measured–what we call a “skateboard.” In our Change Making model, we explicitly call out culture as a domain of change that should be approached through an agile process of testing and learning. We recommend drafting your mid-level managers to identify and own this process, as they already play a vital role in turning executive directions into measurable actions. To even make time for change, you may need to help these managers find work they can stop or processes they can simplify.
  6. To make culture change sustainable, you have to begin codifying and rewarding those new behaviors. At this stage, you likely have experiments running and some early successes, but organizational muscle-memory, risk-avoidance, and even change fatigue can derail your early momentum. This is the moment to champion change: when you have actual change champions—folks who have produced observable changes that you can highlight and reward in full view of their peers. Change champions should also be called on to train their peers in the organization on new ways of working. You should also begin codifying their new behaviors as standard operating procedures; which should include new process documents, as well as distilled into a “culture contract” that can be used to hold the organization accountable for sustaining its new culture(s). 

We hope this helps you if you’re embarking on making changes to your culture. Throughout the process, remember that culture change takes time, so do reflect on and recognize your progress, and commit to resilience as a leader.

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