Making Culture change stick
If company culture is described as “the way we do things round here” then hundreds, if not thousands of companies are currently struggling with how to alter their existing culture in some way.
Sackings, redundancies, cutbacks and economies may not be enough to enable many organisations to survive the present economic blizzard. Nothing less than a fundamental re-thing about certain aspects of corporate culture will allow these firms to continue and eventually to once again thrive.
Yet for many managers and leaders culture change may be new territory. Most at least have heard of culture change as a route to altering company and individual behaviour. Yet knowing that change is needed or possible is not the same as understanding how to go about making it happen.
So what are the ingredients that lead to a successful culture change? Equally important what ensures that those changes made do eventually stick? Take for example the much needed shift from old style command and control to a more inclusive approach to managing the organisation. Many city firms are still wedded to an old style of managing and communicating and are only now starting to face up to the need to finally change direction. Showing their managers new ways of behaving is easy, embedding a new way to talking to and respecting employees is a much bigger challenge.
Or consider the urgent need to maximise the use of existing resources with the aim of achieving higher levels of productivity and performance from existing employees. For some managers this represents a whole new mindset in how you go about tapping into people’s creativity, engagement, and mobilising their enthusiasm and commitment. It may also imply a significant and permanent shift in entrenched attitudes to issues such as diversity, bullying, sexism, decision making and conflict management.
In our award winning paper on Sustaining Culture Change we identify two essential approaches that companies need to consider: company change and individual change. From our experience of working on culture change in companies although there are inevitably many variables to take into account in making the change stick, we find that at least six prove to be what in negotiating terms might be called “deal breakers.”
That is, if you do not pay considerable attention to getting these elements right in your company change effort it is highly unlikely that the transformations you want will still be observable in say 24 months from now. This is because so much of culture change is susceptible to inbuilt inertia.
Likewise, the even more tricky second part of culture change concerns achieving actual new behaviours from employees and others affected by the new approach. Again in our experience, this is where many of those seeking to develop their people often lack the practical know how of what creates sustained behavioural change.
Altering individual behaviour is not of course about changing people’s entire personality or making them into something entirely different. It is mainly about helping them experiment safely with new attitudes and different ways of working, thinking and communicating. Making this process fun, engaging, memorable and above all impactful is no easy task and may take considerable ingenuity to devise effective development strategies that first generate change and then reward and encourage its long term continuation.
What all this amounts to is culture change is rarely a quick fix. Clearly, if your entire organisation is about to go into terminal decline attempting a sustained culture change is almost impossible. For example, even if Woolworths had been able to respond with a new culture in recent times, it would almost certainly not have arrived quickly enough to make a difference to whether the company survived or not.
Culture change is not for the faint hearted or for those who see it as a sprint, rather than a marathon. Yet it can undoubtedly yield fundamental improvements in company and individual performance and is the kind of investment that many firms badly need to make these days when the fundamentals of what they are for and how they can sensibly adapt are now high on the corporate agenda.