Culture transformation is where many organizations fail. Senior executives spend ample time defining new directions, conducting punchy reveals, and sending everyone off to the races to execute the vision. However, such interventions often fall flat, leaving leaders, sponsors, and transformation officers frustrated at the slow pace or utter lack of progress.
Unfortunately, a change in direction or even organizational structure alone does not bring about a change in culture. Layers of years-long, collective experience underpin an organization’s thinking and operations. These beliefs, norms, and ways of working often outlast the leader, event, or crisis that first created them, and — if left unaddressed — will continue to manifest in unproductive, obstructive ways.
For that reason, there are two parts to successful culture change: envisioning the future and letting go of the past. For most organizations, letting go of the past is much harder, and often ignored.
Here are the five key steps to doing both well:
- Link cultural aspirations to your strategy.
There’s no sense in creating a new culture in a vacuum. Buzzwords like “agility” and “innovation” fail to ignite change unless they are defined in relation to both your company’s new strategy and the specific behavioral changes needed to achieve your business goals.
- Be honest about the current state.
Having an honest assessment of the current culture helps you identify the strengths you can leverage along with what might be holding you back. Keep in mind, for senior leaders who have created or currently uphold a culture, a candid snapshot is akin to constructive feedback. Such data be very disruptive, but also can make the case for change. Therefore…
- Allow leaders space to honor the past before they let it go.
It’s important to recognize that there were good reasons that your organization did things a certain way in the past, but also that such methods may no longer serve your company today and in the future.
For example, a founder and CEO of a technology company wanted to be involved in all major customer-impacting decisions. This made sense when the company was comprised of 50 people, but by the time the company scaled to 5,000 people, the CEO’s involvement was a major obstacle to speed not to mention squelching local authority.
Allow leaders to spend time reflecting on the current culture in a structured way. How did these beliefs, norms, and ways of working serve the organization in the past? Are they worth preserving? How might the company pivot to something more productive?
- Be explicit about what you’ll do differently.
Take a critical eye to your current ways of working. Seemingly subtle changes can have a big impact on creating the culture you need to succeed.
An oil and gas company launched a new strategy where everyone needed to experiment and learn faster, even if it meant they faltered in the short term. They realized that their quarterly business reviews (QBRs), which primarily judged and dissected the past, sent the wrong cultural signal. So, they reframed their QBRs as question banks that spurred thoughts of the future and eliminated obstacles to its attainment.
- Engage the organization in the conversation.
Authorship is ownership. The more you engage people across the organization in these dialogues, the more they identify what to stop and start, the more they will commit to change. You cannot tell people what they need to let go of. They must discover and decide what they will do differently.
Any transformation, with its layers and nuances, takes time and careful consideration. By considering the cultural aspect of a transformation, you’re enabling your organization to more seamlessly make the shifts necessary to take on its future form. Envision the culture you need to be, honor the past, let it go, and shift toward a new paradigm day by day.