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May 14, 2021

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight, but sometimes you really need it to. 

It’s a tricky time for organizations and their employees. An ever-faster rate of change coupled with increasing uncertainty requires companies to work in new ways, but the process of shifting a culture can move at a glacial pace, and most businesses cannot afford to wait.  

Cultures are created by long-established norms within an organization. These patterns of behavior are consistently reinforced — formally and informally — through systems, processes, and people. What we know about effective and adaptable culture boils down to this: You have to be intentional about driving it. You will have a culture regardless, but is the one that organically evolves really the one that you need to achieve your vision? 

Suppose that, as a leader, you need your organization to be more agile and move more quickly to accelerate your speed-to-market and innovation more quickly. You tell everyone that they have permission to act and the agency to make decisions.

Six months later, nothing has changed. You’re asking yourself, “Why aren’t people taking more actions and behaving with more initiative?” 

Perhaps it’s because of a track record: For years, anyone who had an idea that did not work either got fired or got taken off the fast track. Perhaps it is because of inconsistencies: While you are overtly giving permission to others to behave differently, fellow leaders are still practicing a command-and-control management style. Maybe the problem is more structural, whereby strong silos stifle any attempt to move more quickly. 

Unless you intentionally break down all of these barriers, telling people that they have permission to act will not actually lead to any new behaviors or ways of working.

In sleepier times, this was a real problem, but one you may have had time to solve. But these are not sleepy times. These days, you have a more finite window of opportunity to either shape or turn your organization’s culture around — and may not know where to begin. 

Indeed, there are myriad complexities that make culture change hard, and oftentimes slow. But not impossible.

Driving Intentional Change

Organizational culture will move regardless of whether you’re steering its direction. Rather than just letting it evolve, creating intentional culture is possible if you are clear and relentless in your pursuit. Here’s how to frame the path forward:

1. Clearly define the desired culture.

Start by assessing what you have today. Which elements of your culture are essential to you? What is it that makes your organization unique? 

This may be tied to your competitive advantage, your mission, or a founder’s legacy. Once identified, determine the health of those sacred elements. Are they evident at all? Have they evolved out of the organization completely, and will you require a concerted to bring them back? Are they still the right elements that will take your business into the future? Finding out answers begins with a deliberate, comprehensive, and data-driven investigation of what is true of your organization’s culture today.

You then need to define which new cultural norms will be critical to achieve success going forward. Be careful not to frame this solely around a burning platform. Rather, think about what opportunities lie ahead if you’re able to adapt your culture.

2. Intentionally demonstrate new behaviors.

Your next task is to orchestrate actions aligned with the culture you seek. These are material steps people — ideally, many people — can take that are visible, authentic, and replicable. Most importantly, these actions must be strategically aligned. 

Discrete, feel-good activities (we’ve all been privy to this sort of superficial ra-ra) that are disjointed from the heartbeat of the business are unlikely to sustain long enough to become a norm. What’s more, if budgets tighten and activities become closely monitored to protect margin, anything that doesn’t add value will be up for elimination. You don’t want your cultural hallmarks to be on the chopping block at the first sign of pressure.

The work here is to orchestrate these first small wins to show how the desired behaviors and ways of working drive tangible business results. To do this, it’s helpful to identify the places in your organization where a culture shift will be most impactful— to the business and your customers — rather than trying to boil the ocean. For example, after a merger, you may get the biggest impact from ensuring the two legacy sales teams build a culture of true collaboration. 

3. Visibly demonstrate repeatable wins.

It is equally important to balance wins with how the wins were created — the new cultural behaviors and ways of working that contributed to those wins. 

In the example of a leader giving people permission to take action, but seeing none, the leader could publicly highlight instances where giving agency, for instance, to a customer-service representative enabled that person to solve a customer challenge. A leader might also send a video thanking that rep. 

Wins that matter to people, communicated by those with influence and celebrated at the top of the hierarchy, fuel belief that the needle is moving. More people than you might imagine may need to see to believe. 

4. Repeat actions to develop new habits. 

“Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life,” Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before, writes. “We repeat about 40% of our behavior almost daily, so if we change our habits, we change our lives.” 

What we do (or resist doing) at work day after day can either be a catalyst for powerful transformation or reinforce resistance to change — and the results of either have a compounding effect. When more people take action to reinforce the culture we want to create, that culture begins to build. When more people sustain those behaviors, that culture becomes durable. 

Why are habits so essential? They’re automatic. We can all rally to do things deliberately for a discrete period of time, and incentives can help nudge people toward trying new behaviors (via elements like gamification, community-building, public affirmation, personal recognition, etc.). But doing things deliberately requires effort. Habits are more unthinking — and thus, they are what we tend to revert back to when things get challenging.

If your workplace habits reinforce the culture-affirming wins you generated, you’re en route to steering your culture to an intentional destination.

5. Over time, habits reinforce the new culture

It can take a very long time for habits to develop and to truly change the cultural DNA of an organization. Meanwhile, an accelerating rate of change can cause leaders to take their eye off the ball. After seeing evidence of initial results and momentum, they assume it’s safe to move on to the next area that needs attention. As a result, many transformation efforts fail to truly drive lasting change.

The formula for making sustainable culture change marries intentionality, persistence, and rapid action. Once you begin to see results, continue to reinforce the behaviors you want to see for the months and years that follow. Use this framework over time, continuing to assess if the cultural attributes sought and obtained are still essential so you can continue to adapt as needed.

Our shared, lived experience over recent years provides sufficient evidence that change — and its sidekick, uncertainty — are here to stay. We know that intentional and adaptive cultures are critical to set up your organization to respond to rapid change in an agile fashion.