Why Culture Change Is Not Understood – With A Short Guide To Greater Understanding

The recent past has forced many organisations to confront a painful truth. There was something amiss in their culture which meant either they didn’t see the problems coming as the clouds of recession gathered and/or their culture is inhibiting their ability to respond effectively to the new economic realities. Hence the need for culture change.

The problem is that for many organisations they seem not to understand what they are trying to do. Their terms of reference are ill defined and their ability to articulate the cultural current and desired states is poor. There is also confusion over timescales. Often you will hear managers talk about cultural change taking ‘many years’ which its tantamount to saying the culture can’t be changed, whilst others will talk about a three month culture change project.

This is why culture change fails.

To help organisations approach culture change more productively we have prepared a prompt guide to at least try to organise your thinking and process of examining culture change more productively:

  1. Firstly a definition. Culture is expressed as a set of behaviours that are viewed by the organisation as normal and expected – what is often referred to as ‘the way we do things round here’.
  2. Next, values are not a synonym for culture. Values (what you believe in and stand for) inform the way you behave, when those behaviours normalise you have an expressed culture.
  3. So if you wish to change your culture you need to think about what your current values are. By values we don’t mean the laminated 6 phrases on the back of a company swipe card, but the things the company really believes in.
  4. By proper examination of the values you can begin to decide on their appropriateness and think about changing them but you need another compass bearing before you can set a new direction.
  5. The organisation’s vision. What is the organisation’s purpose? Again a real vision isn’t a marketing strap-line on a business card, but a much more fundamental expression of what you are trying to achieve.
  6. As these two concepts start to germinate and synthesise (don’t worry about also needing a mission- we’ve never seen an organisation satisfactorily manage a vision and mission in any added value sense at all) you can focus on the catalyst for cultural change – the organisation’s and individuals’ behaviours.
  7. Behaviours are the visible manifestation of values. By focusing on behaviours which are both definable and controllable you can start to shape a new culture.
  8. This is where we can answer the timing point. Many behaviours can be changed in the very short term which will give you a quick win but they won’t (yet) be unconscious; they will easily revert unless the process is vigilant. This is the longer term perspective.
  9. To affect permanent behavioural change a key component is an organisation’s consequences model. There has to be consequences, both good, bad and indifferent, for a person’s behaviour to permanently change; and this must be separated from their performance. If good performance creates license for bad behaviour any culture change stops right there.
  10. Finally, never call it a programme, project or campaign, and never use the word launch. Culture change is a process, a journey, not a destination, it is organic and constantly present.