Cultural Change for Organizations in an Age of Transformation

admin — 04 March 2024

Organizational culture is the collection of behaviors that define “how we do things around here.” Cultural change means changing specific behaviors to achieve new goals. Because change is difficult, organizations need strong motivation and clear goals to make cultural change succeed.

New conditions often require organizational change.  When transformational changes occur (including the pandemic and the rise of A.I.), an organization’s basic culture needs to change accordingly.  

But what is organizational “culture” and how can it change?  This article will explore why and how organizations may undertake a cultural change.

What is “organizational culture”?

A Gallup article succinctly describes organizational culture as, “How we do things around here.”  An article in the  Harvard Business Review puts it this way: “Culture is how a group does the things it does. It changes because people start doing things differently or start doing different things.” 

In other words, when looking at organizational culture, the focus should be on behavior and action: The real work that real people do every day.

It may be tempting to use labels like “innovative” or “entrepreneurial” or “collaborative” to define culture, but these kinds of words are vague.  They reflect values and aspirations without describing the actual work involved. 

Why change an organization’s culture? 

Change is hard. Try adding a new, healthy habit to your daily routine. It isn’t easy.  Now multiply that effort across all the individuals in an organization. That’s even harder, and cultural change will probably require a series of changes. It isn’t something to be done lightly. 

Organizations must have compelling reasons to undertake a cultural change, which can be costly and time consuming.  Compelling reasons may include the need to improve business results or take advantage of new opportunities.  They may come from outside forces, like the pandemic or the rise of A.I. 

When an organization is facing transformational changes, it may then consider transforming its culture. Cultural change can be too big a step without a compelling reason or extremely necessity, because it is very difficult. 

How to change an organization’s culture

Here are some general steps for implementing a cultural change.  Individual situations will naturally require unique approaches.  But in every case, the organization must keep firmly in mind the reasons for the change and the ultimate goals of the change.

  1. What are we doing now?

Begin by assessing the organization’s present culture. An excellent start is to survey employees to find out what they believe the culture to be. 

The next step is to ask how the existing culture helps the organization. How does it hold the organization back? Some things will need to change, but not everything. The organization should recognize and preserve the qualities that made it unique, and that still serve its needs.

  1. What do we want?

Set specific, measurable business goals.  Decide precisely what issues a cultural change is intended to address, and how to measure progress.  

Resist the temptation to set vague goals, like becoming more “customer-centric” or “collaborative,” without deciding exactly what those terms mean. Focusing on specific details and milestones will help keep the effort on track. 

  1. What should we do differently? 

Determine what behavioral changes will promote the organization’s strategy and goals. Match the behavior with the desired outcomes. If certain practices are no longer producing results, what exactly should people be doing instead? 

Equally important is to make sure the organization can support cultural change.  If the organization wants more collaboration, for example, make sure the management structure is flexible enough to allow it. The organization’s culture, strategy, and structure need to be in alignment.

  1. Focus on a few key behaviors.

Because change is hard, focusing on just a few key changes can be critical to success. Trying to implement too many changes risks diluting and dissipating the effort. Don’t try to do too much!

The organization should instead work to identify a small number of behaviors that will drive the change it wants to see.  Involving front-line employees will be essential. People tend to support and “own” changes if they’ve been part of the process. Don’t be afraid to change course if needed. Keep what works and discard the rest. 

  1. Lead the change.

Cultural change can’t be delegated.  Leaders must be the “face and voice” of change. They must make the case for change and demonstrate the desired behaviors daily.

But cultural change can’t simply be imposed from the top – that risks inciting resentment and resistance. Leaders must gather support by listening to concerns and soliciting feedback from front-line employees. Most important is to communicate the need for change “again and again and again and again.”

Organizational culture boils down to behaviors. Cultural change simply means changing those behaviors. But change isn’t easy. Organizations considering a cultural change need to have a strong motivation to see the process through. They also need to develop a clear vision of their ultimate goals and how specific changes will help bring about those goals. 

If you would like to learn more about organizational culture and cultural change, please contact us. 

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ForeMeta offers breakthrough leadership coaching to develop CEO self-leadership and leading teams and organizations.  We offer both individualized coaching or group coaching to help leaders and their people achieve greater success.  Please contact Mike@ForeMeta.com

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