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Culture Change: Do You Really Need It?

Change is good!Clients frequently ask me about culture change. I hear comments like “we need to change our culture to stay competitive, improve quality, and reduce attrition.” There are a litany of reasons to change a company’s culture. However, before we go about changing the culture, we must first understand the culture in its current state. Only then can we create a future vision and a plan to get us there.

Assessing the culture is the first step. This process requires a facilitator who understands the concept of culture. The facilitator can be someone from within the organization or an external consultant but cannot be a company leader or one of the founding members. An external consultant has the advantage of providing unbiased opinions on what he or she observes.

The following are steps I’ve used in the past to assess culture.

Talk to the people. Group interviews are my personal preference. Culture is the product of a shared belief among a group of employees, and thus individual responses will result in invalid observations. Group interviews conducted by a knowledgeable facilitator are the best way to assess and plan a cultural change. Never rely on questionnaires. Every organization’s culture is unique, which makes it difficult to create a common set of questions to be used in evaluating the culture. Surveys and questionnaires are effective tools for measuring the employee satisfaction and overall organization’s performance, but not for measuring culture.

Create a list of facts from the interviews and your observations.

  • What are the working hours? Do the standards allow flexible working hours and location? How is the workplace designed, does it have open workspaces, offices with closed doors, focus rooms, etc.?
  • How much authority do employees have at each level? What is the organizational structure - hierarchical or flat? Are decisions made only by the executives? How does management react when decisions prove to be wrong?
  • Are the executive decisions, mission and vision, and strategies communicated timely and appropriately to all levels? Can employees restate the organization’s mission and vision? How are meetings organized and conducted? How effective and open are the conversations in the meetings?
  • What kind of language is generally used in day-to-day conversations? This includes all mediums such as presentations, email, verbal communication, jargon, and acronyms. How do employees address each other in meetings and especially during disagreements?
  • What kind of rewards, employee socialization, rituals, and ceremonies are routinely observed in the organization?

Test the Values. Organizational leaders set the desired values they expect to be observed. However, the practiced values can be very different than the advocated ones. Such contradictions can have an adverse effect on the culture. Consider a horizontal organization where teamwork and collaboration are the advocated values, however the organization lacks an appropriate level of evaluating performance management. Employees will soon realize there is little benefit to collaboration. The same can be said regarding a cultural value promoting innovation. If employees are berated when they think outside the box and fail, it becomes a fear based culture, and innovation dies.

Probe the Assumptions. During the group interviews and testing phase, you need to uncover the assumptions employees have about the cultural values. Do they view the artifacts and values as corporate rituals (talk the talk, but not walk the walk). Do they feel that the corporate values are applicable only to management? Is management leading by example? A culture of innovation might be perceived to be applicable for engineers in the organization, yet the employees in other business units such as Finance feel they just have to follow directions.

Once you understand your current organizational culture, your organization must then decide where it wants to go, define its strategic direction, and decide what the organizational culture should look like to support success. What mission and vision does the organization have for its future and how must the culture change to support the accomplishment of that vision? The management team needs to answer questions such as:

  • What are the most important values you would like to see represented in your organizational culture?
  • Are these values compatible with your current organizational culture? Do they exist now? Leadership needs to set the example, and live and breathe the desired behavior to support the culture.

Knowing what the desired organizational culture looks like is not enough. Organizations must create plans to ensure the desired organizational culture becomes a reality. Make sure the organization understands why you’re making the change, get everyone on board by engaging with them from the top down, and start with baby steps.

It’s not easy to change a culture that’s been the same for any significant amount of time, but there are ways to set yourself up to not be part of the 81% of culture change initiatives that fail.

Change won’t happen overnight, but by starting small, assessing where you are before you create a plan, and by effectively communicating the plan, you’ll start seeing the results. Continue to reinforce the desired behavior to make the new culture stick.

Continue evaluation over regular intervals to evaluate the success of the cultural changes implemented against the company’s mission and goals along with the general happiness of the employees.