Culture Change: Ignoring Culture is Risky Business

Posted by Paula Alsher on Tue, Jun 10, 2014 @ 12:33 PM

There are many strategic changes that are highly desirable on paper but require a shift in the organization's culture.  Changes like Shared Services, ERP implementations, Business Transformation, and Lean/Six Sigma have great potential upside value but may also go against the grain of the organization's culture.  When you are dealing with a change that has cultural implications, you need to be prepared for one of two options! Culture Change

When you introduce a change that is inconsistent with the current culture, you can either modify the change so that you eliminate the elements of inconsistency, or you can attempt to change the culture.

Your corporate culture is the collective pattern of values, behaviors, and unwritten rules of your organization—it’s the collective frame of reference for your organization.  And when it comes to implementation of major business changes, the consistency of that change within the corporate culture can predict the probability of implementation success. 

Very simply, culture change is highly disruptive and therefore is going to generate a huge amount of resistance. This is why you need to be able to identify the impacts of your change for every impacted Target group. You will need to be prepared to manage that resistance or it will go underground and subvert the intended change.

If you are going to change the culture, you will need far more resources and time, because we know it will be highly disruptive.


Culture is Your Organization's Real Operating Model

Remember what happened when you first joined your organization?  You may have been given a handbook with all the formal policies and procedures. Helpful?  Sure.

But we all know that there are "unwritten rules" that dictate how your organization really operates.  For example, can you send an email to anyone you think is appropriate, or do you need to clear that with "x people" first?  Who are the people you can count on to really navigate the waters of the organization?

Is your organization "politically charged" with a culture of turf-guarding?  You won't find this written in any handbook, but rest assured, you need to be prepared to deal with it.

We all recognize that our organizations have unique aspects to them which we can term the "corporate culture."  The culture includes:

  • Behaviors- how we operate
  • Values- guidelines for the decisions we make
  • Unwritten rules- “the way we do things around here”

While you may not talk about the culture, or see the culture, it's there and operating.  It's what occurs below the water line!

The Risky Business of Culture Change

There are many reasons why culture change is so difficult. 

First, leaders will be inclined to reinforce the culture that made them successful in the first place—culture is self-reinforcing! So consequently you can expect a lot of resistance from the leaders themselves (as we say, you can expect the greatest resistance from those that have the highest investment in things remaining the same.) 

Second, the reinforcements that you have in place have created a perfectly designed organization for what you have today.  Your culture is elegantly designed to maintain the status-quo.

So don't attempt a change that is going to go against the current culture unless there is a major business reason for doing it. Then, if changing the culture still makes good business sense, be prepared to:

  • Re-define what success looks like, and build an implementation plan with powerful reinforcements for the new behaviors
  • Make certain that you have powerful Sponsors who are actively committed to the change (not just giving you lip-service of "support")
  • Develop skilled Change Agents who can support the culture change.  If you have too few Agents, or don’t have credibility and influence in the right areas of the organization, your chances for success will be minimal

Change the Reinforcements to Drive the Culture Change

If you are going to move forward with a change that has cultural implications, focus your energies on leveraging active Sponsors who will provide new kinds of reinforcements that will move the change forward.  

The reinforcements should be tied to the specific implementation.  We aren't just talking about monetary compensation.  Some of the most powerful reinforcements we have seen have come from the Targets of the change and are things we never would have thought of! 

Remember that reinforcement is far more powerful than communication!  

Culture change requires more than a vision of the future state—you need a solid implementation plan that includes specific plans for building Sponsorship, Readiness, Reinforcement, Communication, and Change Agents.  The expressed values must be embedded into every strategic change, and must be evident in how the change is being implemented.  It's not an easy thing to do, and that's why culture change is indeed risky business!

Free eBook:  How to Manage Resistance to Change

Topics: Culture, Enterprise-wide Change