Leaders often recognize the need for culture change. They acknowledge it is fundamental to successful transformation, including in planned Mergers & Acquisitions. But while the need for culture change is known, getting it implemented successfully is another story. As the authors of the January-February 2018 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article“The Culture Factor” note, “ In our experience, it is far more common for leaders…to either let it go unmanaged or relegate it to the HR function, where it becomes a secondary concern for the business. They may lay out detailed, thoughtful plans for strategy and execution, but because they don’t understand culture’s power and dynamics, their plans go off the rails.”
Culture change is a tough nut to crack, right? Especially since, as Don Harrison often tells Change Agents and Sponsors, culture is self-reinforcing. Leaders hire and promote individuals who reflect their own values and behaviors. The fastest path to a new culture may be to change all the leaders, but that’s not a very practical strategy for Change Agents to recommend if they want to remain employed!
7 Process Requirements
In our own culture change consulting work, we have come across too many organizations that have spent untold amounts of dollars with large consulting agencies that deliver a shiny Vision & Values statement intended to drive a new culture. And that’s where it stops. While defining the values is important, those values must be translated and lived behaviorally.
As the HBR article notes, this is not an HR exercise. The values and behaviors have to be inculcated into the daily work of the organization, starting with the Senior Team.
Here’s a summary of the process required for a successful culture change implementation based on what we know works and...what doesn’t:
- Organizations mirror their leaders. Therefore, the Senior Team must Express, Model and Reinforce guiding behaviors consistently. Ownership and alignment are critical success factors.
- Behavior change is best accomplished experientially. Most behaviors and leadership styles are ingrained. Unlike financial or technical skills, these are best learned or re-learned through experiences that create new insights.
- Leadership skills and behavior change occur more quickly in natural work groups. The key team comprises the leader and their direct reports. The learning process is most effective when driven from the top down.
- Critical mass must be reached through repetitive processes.
- Change is a function of perceived need. People must see the need (i.e. a compelling business and personal case for action) and the benefit to them. That includes the leaders.
- Reinforcement is essential to ensuring new behaviors become a way of life. Alignment between what is Expressed, Modeled and Reinforced must occur.
- Organization systems, both informal and formal, must mirror and reinforce the guiding behaviors, including but in no way limited to: hiring profiles, employee orientation, performance appraisal, communication, success stories and 360 degree feedback.
As “The Culture Factor” article concludes, “Leading with culture may be among the few sources of sustainable competitive advantage left to companies today. Successful leaders will stop regarding culture with frustration and instead use it as a fundamental management tool.” Your competitors can copy your products and mimic your service offerings. What they can’t do is copy your culture. Before your organization takes the culture change journey, be sure these requirements for success are followed.