5 ELEMENTS OF CULTURE CHANGE

by Trevor Lee

So you want to change your culture? It won’t happen by accident. When it comes to culture, the old quote, “Insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results” is true. Changing culture is as much an art as a science, so there’s not a three-step process to culture change. But there are some elements that are essential if you want to see it happen. Here are five important ones to get you started.

Know your current culture.

If you want to make changes to your culture it means you already have a sense of it, but if you’re going to change it a sense isn’t good enough. You need to understand not only what your culture is, but why it is that way. What are the organizational rhythms, processes, habits, and attitudes that perpetuate the current culture? How does leadership reinforce the current culture–both actively and passively? How have people learned to function in the current culture and what will their pain points be if things change?

When you’re embedded in an organization getting the full picture of the current culture–both the what and the why–can be really difficult. A few years ago I was in an organization that was trying to preserve some of our culture and change some of it. I ended up misfiring on a number of aspects of change because I didn’t fully understand everything that was contributing to the culture. If I had gotten some help from the outside to see things clearly I would have been far more successful. (That’s why Core Ventures offers a culture assessment–to give you the perspective on your culture that can make culture change successful.)

Define your aspirational culture.

Another aspect of successful culture change is having a clear picture of what you want your culture to look like–your aspirational culture. Recently I worked with an organization that had some vague notions of the culture they wanted to build. “We want to be fully devoted to our mission.” Yes, that would be a good thing, but what does that look like? How will you know if people are devoted to the mission? What is the mission?

If you can’t paint a clear picture of your aspirational culture you’ll never achieve it. So do the work to go from generalities and vague notions to clear and measurable markers. This is a lot more work, but without doing it, you’ll just be frustrated by the results.

Embody the change you want to see.

This is for you, leaders. I know because I fumbled this one early in my career. I got so focused on defining the culture we wanted to create and communicating it clearly that I didn’t take my responsibility to live it out first seriously. I figured the vision of a future healthy and thriving culture would be so compelling we’d all skip toward it together. I was wrong. People needed to see that I was committed to changing. They needed to see an example of what the changes looked like. Some of what I took as resistance to change was really just people defaulting to what they had known because I didn’t give them a compelling picture of what change could look like with my life.

Look, I get it, you need to get everyone moving toward culture change. Just remember, if you’re not embodying it first people will have a hard time coming along.

Root out “culture killers.”

Have you ever tried to build a sand castle too close to the ocean? Just when you think you’re making progress a wave comes in and wipes out all your work. “Culture killers” are like those waves–they can be organizational habits, processes, or even people. When you push into culture change you need to watch very carefully for the people and things that are working against it, and you need to do something about them.

If the “culture killer” is a person, find out if they’re trying to derail culture change or just having a hard time adjusting. People who are coachable aren’t a long-term problem. But if they are cynical and unwilling to change you may have to make the hard choice to let them go. If the problem is a habit or process, figure out how to replace the old one with something new people can latch onto.

Celebrate the culture you want to see.

I have a good friend who regularly reminds me, “You get what you celebrate.” One of the most powerful ways to reinforce the changes you want to see is to celebrate the ways those changes are happening. Trying to move from a culture that settles for mediocre to striving for excellence? Define what excellence is and celebrate it when it happens. Trying to move from a siloed culture to one that is more collaborative? Define the kind of collaboration you want to see and celebrate it when it happens (even if it doesn’t get the desired results right away!).

Celebration is simple and powerful. It just takes a little bit of intentionality on the part of the leader.