Anyone who has ever tried to change an organisation’s culture can attest to legacy’s sticky hold, where the pull of the past routinely stymies good intentions.
How to break through the inertia is the question wrestled with by every organisation taking a deliberate approach to their culture.
Culture is built one action and decision at a time. It changes the same way. Still, orgs forget its incremental nature, try to do too much and underestimate the change which cascades beyond a single step.
Small starts deliver more. Much more than people imagine.
For example, a group struggling to set expectations they can meet focuses on that one thing. Every interaction leads to a clear agreement of who will do what by when. As a result, people gain confidence in others and believe what they say, which leads to a more collaborative spirit. Now ideas get moving more quickly…
The whole system becomes more flexible and innovative from the step of making clear agreements.
Thinking about culture steps instead of culture programs can transform the way organisations tackle what needs to change.
Once you embrace the step, look for what’s next and then repeat. First you’ll need to figure out what you want to change. If you’re not sure where to begin, try a vivid description process.
Here’s how it works.
Ask people to describe in detail what kind of culture they want, and encourage them to add colour and stay away from jargon and generalisations.
Instead of saying, “collaborate on new ideas,” people add detail, “gather in
the think tank room and put ideas up on the wall. Everyone pitches in with questions, refining them until we have two or three we all agree are worth exploring further.”
Feel the difference? Beyond the general what of ‘collaborate’, you get a vivid picture of what that really looks like.
Once you have people’s vivid descriptions, look for patterns. What things come up over and over? Choose one thing as a place to begin and follow these tips:
1. Don’t overthink it. Remember, it will reverberate into other things.
2. Start small. Choose something which can deliver quick wins. It’s the key
to generating the energy you’ll need to tackle bigger changes.
3. Make it loose yet pointy. Get explicit on details about what people need
to do differently, and keep the how open so they can integrate it depending
on their role.
4. Free up energy. Overburdened, over-busy people will use what’s familiar even if it sucks. White’s Law talks about culture as the energy used to do work. So using the same energy differently has a switching cost. What resources are you giving people so they can fund the change?
Always remember that culture change takes a long time. A really long time. Depending on how big your organisation is, often 3+ years. So you’ll burn out long before you get there unless you scale down your expectations and