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OCI #21: The Culture/Change Trilogy
Three levels of intersection between organizational culture and change implementation
An organization’s culture is the shared set of values, beliefs, norms, and expectations that guide day-to-day behavior. While much has been written about culture, and there are many models and approaches that describe common dimensions of culture, the intersection of culture and change poses some interesting challenges and questions.
I think of three different junction points when focusing on this intersection. Each of them leads to a different set of discussions and actions. I’ve organized these in increasing order of complexity.
Initiative-Based: How does the organization’s culture affect this initiative?
How We Change: How does the organization’s culture shape the way we implement any change?
Foundational: How do we go about changing the organization’s culture?
The first intersection is the extent to which the organization’s culture is a blocker or enabler of a specific initiative. For example, the implementation of new technology may call for high levels of collaboration in an environment that values high levels of individual effort and competitiveness. A merger may seek to bring together two groups of people who have different views on the importance of titles and status. A move toward higher levels of remote work may bring to light an unwritten expectation that people will only work hard if they are being observed and monitored. In each of these cases, the culture is not the primary focus of the change, but it plays a role in how easy or difficult it is for the initiative to successfully deliver results.
When we are working at this level, the primary questions focus on the impact of the culture on change success. Which elements of the current culture run counter to what we are expecting people to do in the future? Which elements of the culture can serve as accelerators of progress? Are there particular “subcultures”—groups that share local-level norms and values—that are more aligned or less aligned with the goals of the change? How should we adjust our plans to increase our success in the initiative?
In major change initiatives, leaders and change agents typically include culture as one of the elements in their risk/opportunity assessment. Where potential cultural issues are identified, they think about the best way to address them—these can include altering the design of the change to better fit the culture, expanding the change plan to include attention to processes and structures that support selected aspects of the culture, and allowing more time for people to adjust to the new ways of working. In addition, they often place additional emphasis on leader modeling of behaviors and mindsets that are consistent with new ways of operating.
How We Change
The second intersection is the ways in which the organization’s culture influences the process of change implementation. For example, a culture in which leaders are accustomed to making decisions autocratically will approach change very differently from one where high levels of involvement are the norm. Some cultures are very comfortable with disciplined processes, while others are much more comfortable with fluidity and experimentation. Some cultures tend to invest time and energy in planned training sessions during change initiatives, while others expect that people will figure things out as they go along and emphasize peer-to-peer coaching and knowledge sharing.
When we are working at this level, the primary questions revolve around the systems, structures, and processes we use for planning and delivering change initiatives. Who is responsible for these activities? Do we want or need consistent approaches to change? How can we leverage the organization’s preferred ways of operating to build momentum and critical mass during change? Are there aspects of the culture that make every change more difficult than it needs to be? Should we invest resources in shifting those aspects of the culture?
Activities in this area are most effective when led by groups or functions that are seen as “owning” elements of the change process. These can include strategic planning/strategy realization, program/project management, centers of expertise, organization development/organizational effectiveness, human resources, etc. Key activities might include a review of recent change initiatives to evaluate implementation effectiveness, leader education about effective change, discussions about the desired level of change implementation maturity, and creating an initiative that is focused specifically on “changing how we change.”
There are several ways leaders and agents in a specific change initiative or program can work at this level as well. One is to tailor their approaches to the existing culture, developing plans and resources that align with the organization’s preferred way of operating. For example, if the organization resists formal training activities, a team might develop “just in time” learning modules that can be applied by local leaders and peer coaches. Another is to consciously introduce new practices that challenge the mindset of “how we change” in a way that invites the organization to participate and learn.
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The third intersection is the organization’s culture as the focus of change. (I think of this as “Big C” culture change.) This involves targeted efforts to define a desired culture and systematically take steps to move the system toward a new way of operating. For example, an organization’s leaders may seek to strengthen norms and values related to diversity and inclusion. An ethical scandal may bring to light the need to increase transparency and peer accountability. A new leader may desire to align the organization with personal values related to family-friendliness and work-life balance.
When we are working at this level, the primary questions focus on purpose and core values. What does “good” look like? How will we know? How important is it for us to alter the fundamental DNA of the organization? What are the implications of not successfully making this shift? Are there areas of the organization that are particularly good examples of the culture we aspire to? Are there other organizations that we see as role models for the culture we desire? What can we learn from these sources that will serve us? How prepared are our leaders for “being the change” they want to see? Who are the influencers and advocates that can bring their voices into the process? How do we engage the whole organization in this process?
Changing culture takes significant effort. At this level of complexity and strategic focus, activities need to be driven by a strong guiding coalition and supported by a broad and deep network of resources. The process needs to be planned and resourced as a transformational change. Key activities include designing ways to engage the whole organization, creating clear and compelling images of the desired future culture, understanding the full set of enabling systems and levers that shape and reinforce “how we work,” and applying all the skills and tools of the organizational change craft to delivering sustained change.
Each of these areas is important, and skilled leaders and agents of change need to pay attention to each of them. Of course, there is overlap between the three. For instance, any transformational change initiative, even if it’s not specifically labeled as a culture change, will inevitably be interwoven with—and have implications for—the organization’s culture. The culture of “how we change” taps into the core values and beliefs of the organization and therefore has “Big C” culture implications as well. Initiatives that challenge one or more dimensions of the culture may require some degree of focus on changing the culture. They are interconnected. And yet they are different enough that it’s important to pay attention—to recognize which of the levels needs to be your primary focus at the moment and attend to it effectively.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of Organizational Change Intersections. See you in 2 weeks for the next installment!