Most issues within a company can be related to the culture of the people working there. When the “way we do things around here” is not working, it’s time for a cultural change.

Culture is what drives the behaviours within the organization by people either allowing or addressing unwanted behaviours.  Culture causes people to be either late or on time for meetings.  Culture results in commitments being made and followed through or not.  Culture paves the way how colleagues treat each other in the organization.  Culture is even the root of the level of innovation inside an organization.

Culture is all the undocumented rules and behaviours everyone accepts and allows in the workplace.

Let’s talk about culture.

Culture isn’t tangible, yet it directly affects everything tangible created by the teams.  Looking at Google’s products, you can see the culture of fun, innovation, and playfulness.  It is evident in the colours they use and how their products look like, the type and amount of products they build, even the quality of the products reflect what is going on inside the company.

I see Google as a big experimentation lab where people are inspired to dream big and make those dreams a reality.  Their culture perfectly reflects listening and looking at their CEO, always imagining new ways to do old things.

On the other range of the spectrum is Apple, a company where I see quality rather than quantity.  Build one thing awesome rather than ten partly-implemented ideas.  A company where new releases are kept secret, compared to most others, leaks to the media long before launch.  When I look at Apple, I see trust, focused innovation and pride.  Looking at Tim Cook and previously Steve Jobs, they too are a reflection of the culture and mindset of the company as a whole.

Cultural change

In organizations, looking at the culture is an integral part of organizational health. Yet, most organizations leave it to its own accord, much like a tree growing wild, allowed to succeed in any direction, left to the elements to either thrive or die.

The organizations that care about culture, nurturing the tree through the change of seasons, are the ones who sustainably grow.

When you need or want a culture change, it necessarily means that the role model of the culture, the CEO, needs to change.  The cultural change doesn’t have to be a physical replacement of the person, yet it has to involve a commitment from the top to change.  When the CEO doesn’t commit to change their behaviours, the change will be superficial and last as long as there is focused attention on the change initiative.  It will ultimately cost more than what is returned on the investment, and it’s not sustainable.

Superficial change is like putting a veneer layer on an old, rotten wooden table.  It will look good on the outside but will continue to rot away inside until finally, it collapses. The veneer layer is not strong enough to sustain the form without the support of the table underneath.

When you are serious about cultural change, it will take courage and commitment from the leader and the followers.  As the leader, you are committing to an adventure where you will have to face all the aspects of yourself that you don’t like and take responsibility for it.  Because if you don’t change, no one else will. Change starts with you.

The process of change

Change is an evolutionary process rather than a single event.  It is best done in small bites by changing small things continuously, rather than trying to leap from point A to point B in one giant leap.  Here is a five-step process for sustainable change:

1. Commit to change

Everything starts with a desire. Commitment to cultural change is accepting the challenge and sticking with it through good times and bad.

When you’re not committed, it is like moving around the dust in the house rather than cleaning it.  You look busy, but there is no real change.

2. Define success

If you can describe your ideal culture, you can achieve it.  By spending the time to define what a healthy culture looks like collaboratively, you immediately start moving towards it.

3. Assess the reality

Everyone wants to hear good news, feel good, see improvement.  The truth, however, rarely only includes feeling good or things going well.

The hardest part of the change process is looking at the reality of the culture and how it inhibits organizational health and wellbeing.  Look for dysfunctional patterns and behaviours within the team, explicitly observing team meetings.

Meetings are where the people within the organization get together and is the most accurate mirror of the underlying issues within the company or team.

Are people looking forward to getting together and collaborate?  Or are they dreading and looking for any possible excuse to avoid going to a meeting?  Do people come well prepared and have clearly defined objectives?  Do they take action after the session is over on decisions made?  Are meetings long and tedious or short and to the point? Do people leave energized or drained?  Who does the most talking?

4. Focus on changing one habit

Chances are there are more than one thing not going as well as you would like it to go, and it might be tempting to try and change everything at once.  However, each time you change one aspect within the organization, it affects all the other parts. Choose only the most essential behaviour to focus on, starting with trust.

Change and build one tiny habit at a time, building a cultural growth mindset.

5. Reflect and learn

The power of learning is in the integration afterwards, not the learning itself. Periodically taking a step back to see the progress made allows you to re-align and ingrain the change into your conscious mind and daily habits.

Pause between doing, taking the time to reflect, and ask yourself and the team questions to discover the impact of the recent change.

What did you achieve?  What have you learned?  Also, what worked?  What didn’t work, and how can we change it?  Are our vision of a culture still valid?


There is a change, and then there is real change.  The former is a primarily simple process to make you feel better in the short run while having no real long-term benefit.  The latter takes courage.  It feels awful in the short run while you take ownership of the organisation’s issues that you tried to hide or explain away for so long. Still, it reaps sustainable long-term benefits beyond your wildest expectations when you manage to overcome these obstacles.

The question is whether you, as a leader or organization, really want to change?  Or do you hope that the people around you will change without you having to?

Image courtesy of Depositphotos

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.