Change Agents: A Guide to Implementing Culture Change

Posted by Paula Alsher on Tue, Sep 10, 2013 @ 03:27 PM

Change Agents may not initially think they are working on a culture change, but there is a good chance that you may have one on your plate.  Don Harrison, the developer of the Accelerating Implementation Methodology (AIM), likes to tell the story of a call he got a few years ago from a client.  The client asked, "Don, can you come out to our site and give us a culture?"  A Guide to Culture Change


What is Culture Change?

Knowingly or not, your organization has its own culture! It's the collective pattern of behaviors, values, and "unwritten rules" that every organization develops over time.  Your culture is the underpinning of what really goes on in your organization-- the dynamics, the politics, the sub-text of your organization.  And you likely have multiple sub-cultures-- differences from one geographic region to another, or one business unit to another, even one department to another.

So when you look at your project, it may not always be obvious, but you may be dealing with a culture change. For example, if you are working on a transformational change, it is by definition a culture change. The core principle in dealing with culture change is that if your implementation conflicts directly with the culture, the current culture is going to win out. Your choices are simple:  either you will need to modify the content of the change so it is consistent with your culture, or you are going to have to change the culture.

That's no simple or quick task.


Practical Strategies for Change Agents 

The term "culture change" may strike fear in your heart and appear daunting, but there are some specific tactics and strategies that you can focus your energies on that will help you increase the likelihood of implementation success and speed adoption.

1.  Exploit high-yield, low risk opportunities to lead with results rather than rhetoric. Look for small but highly visible ways to demonstrate the new culture by asking your Sponsors to do some different things. It's really amazing how people will pick up on these differences or what we call "psychological cues."  For instance, it may be the way that a Sponsor announces a change.  If the Sponsor always uses email, don't use email for this announcement. Remember that Sponsor actions are far more important than Sponsor words. 

2.  Use highly visible recognition tactics to reinforce the desired state.  The only way to drive culture change is to change the reinforcements-- process follows reinforcement.  So it makes sense that if you want speed up culture change, the new reinforcements need to be powerful and very visible, where that is appropriate.  Where you can "call out" in a positive way the new behaviors, you will be helping to accelerate adoption.


3.  Leverage sub-cultures that have a higher cultural fit with the change.  Go to those sub-cultures first, and build momentum from there.  This is a "build strength as you go" strategy that basically says, "Don't fight your toughest battles first.  Go to your allies and friends and gather momentum." 


4.  Eliminate initiatives that drive "activity" vs. substantive changes.  Given the complexity of cultural change, the organization should focus effort, energy, and resources where it will have the most impact.  When energy and resources are diffused on initiatives that don't contribute in a significant way to the culture change, you teach the organization that the culture change isn't really that important.  If your Sponsors are "signing up" for culture change, focus and prioritization become extremely important.


5.  The more non-aligned the sub-culture and the project are to the culture, the more you will need highly skilled Change Agents and Sponsors who are committed for the long-haul, with the requisite discipline and tenacity.  The more there is non-alignment, the greater the need for structure and for a long term, disciplined implementation plan.  The greater the challenge, the greater the need for resources who have the skills and focus to deliver what it will take for long-term success.


Culture is the only long-term source of competitive advantage.  Strategy, products, marketing, finance, and technology can all be replicated, over time, by your competition. But no other organization can match what makes your organization "you."  So if you are trying to change the culture, have your eyes open before you take the leap.

The Real Cost of Transformation and Culture Change



Topics: Transformational Change, Culture, Change Agents