We know that organisational culture change is possible. However, we also know that achieving lasting change requires a lot of effort. Organisational culture is an emergent property of how the people in an organisation interact and work together. Organisational culture is never finished; it grows, develops, and shifts. It is complex and often messy – just like a person. Therefore, when we seek to change organisational culture through new initiatives and strategies, what we really need to change is how human beings interact and work together. In this sense, we should think of ‘culture’ as a verb rather than a noun, something in a state of becoming rather than a fixed or finished thing.
This process is often lengthy and requires the ability to scan situations and determine the direction of change. It calls for everyone to be on board in co-creating change together, and it involves the destabilisation of the current culture. However, what is needed is faith – the ability to persevere despite a lack of results, knowing that they do not mean failure in the long term.
In this article, I will share some critical insight I have gained over many years of helping organisations shift their cultures successfully.
Accept that culture change is a marathon, not a sprint
I recently spoke to the global head of HR at a large corporation. Previous attempts to change the culture in his company had not been successful, and these experiences had left him without faith that it was worth investing in cultural transformation. However, he did admit that their attempts at transformation were usually carried out ad hoc and that they were dropped if they didn’t achieve spectacular results within a year. Before beginning any cultural transformation process, it’s crucial to understand that they require hard work, concentration, and consistency over several years – results are not instant.
Leaders often come to me with clearly defined expectations of their organisational culture shift. For example, they usually expect employees’ values, attitudes, and behaviour to be changed as soon as possible, sometimes as early as six months after beginning the development programme. Unfortunately, cultural transformations cannot be carried out in a few months. Developing good cooperation between people and departments, delegating authority, and taking responsibility for achieving more than just your own goals requires time. In reality, introducing changes consistently gives measurable results after 2–3 years. This is often a shock for organisations that are going through cultural transformations for the first time or have not yet experienced a well-conducted culture change process. Many in this situation become doubtful and impatient. Accustomed to the rapid dynamics and fast pace of business goals, they give up before starting the change.
Highlight results as they happen
Small changes and positive shifts are the first signs that transformation is beginning to occur, but they often go unnoticed. Pointing these changes to people is a surefire way to maintain faith and enthusiasm. There are a variety of tools that can help you make these culture shifts visible to your people in an enjoyable and exciting way:
Cultural research tools (such as a value match tool).
Stories told by people in the organisation. Stories speak to people more than charts, data or analysis. Present results in podcasts or short films; don’t be afraid of creative solutions that galvanise motivation through positive emotions.
A multimedia experiential exhibition. As part of a recent award-winning cultural change programme, Impact devised a multimedia exhibition to highlight to participants the positive shifts that were occurring in their organisation as a result of their hard work. The exhibition included photos, films, and material objects from the journey they had travelled on together for several years. The event provoked real positive emotion, and it strengthened the leaders’ belief that it is worth working in a company where organisational culture is built in collaboration with their people.
Be prepared to be flexible and adaptable
The most successful culture change projects focus on building a joint coalition with their people and committing to creating change together. Working collaboratively and adapting solutions as you go is more effective than sticking rigidly to the original solution architecture. Make space for experimenting, adapting, and continuous co-creation of the solution. This approach is the opposite of what many organisations expect, with most clients looking for a detailed, multi-stage action plan that is best implemented without any changes. But modifications aren’t a threat; they’re essential. They don’t mean a lack of structure or control; they mean better structure and control. Solutions within specific timeframes are possible, but it’s vital to be open to modification and disruption. Many factors in change processes cannot be predicted. When we start working with those directly affected by the change, we begin to understand the situation and the best way to shift it. This is where faith is needed: trust the solutions and be brave enough to accept adjustments.
The long-term, complex nature of cultural change processes must be considered from the very start of any change initiative. With the ambitious goal of creating a different organisational culture, these multi-year projects will involve many twists, turns, uncertainties, and difficult decisions. At Impact, we will equip your organisation with the appropriate skills and resources for this challenge. Still, we will also help you to foster faith in its results – the belief that it is possible to shift culture, achieve success, and make your organisation a place worth working for.
Ewa Rolley is the GM of Impact Central Europe.