One of the most commonly asked questions in my work on culture is how long will the change take? When will we have the culture we need? There is no simple answer to this question because a multitude of factors can influence the speed of culture change across an organization. But there are things you can do to speed up the process.
It starts with being clear on the kind of culture you need to underpin your strategy. What values and behaviors do you need people to display to reach your business goals? Clarity of what’s expected will help leaders holding staff to account, and it will help staff to know whether they are doing the right thing or not. With leaders role modeling the very same behaviours they want to see in others, the change will have a starting point. But it may still take too much time for those business leaders who can’t afford to wait or are experiencing pressure from shareholders.
This is where the tipping point theory comes in handy. This theory has its roots in epidemiology. It says that once the beliefs and behaviours of a critical mass of people are engaged, the new ideas or behaviours will spread like a virus or an epidemic, bringing deep change at a fast pace. In his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates that there are three factors for social epidemics:
- The power of the few – You only need to work with a few individuals, a number of agents who will make a clear call for action, and who will mobilise their actions on the key players in the organisation.
- The stickiness factor – The change must make sense to people. For culture, what this means is that staff need to understand why the behaviors they are being asked to display are going to make a difference to the business and their lives.
- The power of context – The change will happen if it is articulated in the context of the business imperative or why the need to change to be successful.
Culture Goes Viral
Once the tipping point is reached, an amazing phenomenon takes place, whereby more and more people start adopting the new way of being and doing at an accelerated pace. When you have been working on shifting the culture for a few months, sometimes, years, this is something wonderful to witness. The change is visible, employees become more positive, and even the naysayers are changing their minds.
Research varies as to the percentage of employees who need to behave differently for it to catch-on. 35% is what is most commonly used. However, researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The minority belief becomes the majority opinion.
The consequence for accelerating culture change is that you only need to focus on a small number of people. An important part of the work will be to develop a strategy on how to reach the tipping point in the organization. Which people to enroll, convince, educate and maybe which ones to not focus on? Where are they? What positions do they hold? Where do they sit in relation to the values and behaviors you are trying to shift? Are they open? Are they trusted by others?
Those Who Can Lead Change
Here are some of the people you will need to consider in your strategy:
The leadership cohort
At the end of the day, culture is led from the top, and if the leaders do not role model the desired behaviours, there is little value in asking others to do so. The tipping point will not take place if only a few leaders are behaving appropriately. Find the role models in the leaders, and identify the others who are open to change and who you can work with. Bring them on board and build the tipping point within the leadership cohort. This is a great start.
Those are people who, in some way, shape or form, already role model some aspects of the desired culture. Enrolling them into the change process is a great way of building a community of people who are enthusiastic, understand how culture works, and can be used for a variety of change activities such as workshop facilitation and town hall meetings.
Connectors are network builders; they are the individuals with the shortest path to all other individuals. They control a lot of the flow of information and are a liaison among tribes and groups. They are very useful in spreading a message, but because they can also be bottlenecks, you need them on your side.
These are the people whose impact is larger than their role or position because they are listened to or play a central role in the company. They can be the receptionists, a leader whom everybody respects, someone who has been in the organization for years, the IT people, or simply the cleaners. It does not matter who they are, they will play a crucial role in spreading the word. Some influencers can have very little reach but have great influence within the networks where they do have reach. This is why they need to be considered together with connectors.
Customers and external stakeholders
They are often forgotten, but they have a strong influence on what happens internally. Bring them with you on the journey, let them know what you are trying to achieve, and the external pressure will contribute to the change.
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I see more and more boards involved in the culture journey of an organization, from defining the culture to monitoring its risks. Some boards are directly involved in the day to day operations, others less so. However, they all play a critical role and represent a strong symbol of what is valued. They need to embrace the new culture and support leaders in the journey.
Finally, those of your people who are open to change. This will be the most useful cohort in terms of building a healthy tipping point. We are sometimes tempted to spend time on those who are reluctant to change. Don’t do it. Focus instead on those who you know will join the boat when they see it turning.
Build your tipping point for change as you would play a game of chess: Think strategically, don’t move too fast, and analyse your pieces. Are your rooks and bishops open to change or should you focus on your pawns and knights?
Do you know who the role models are in your organization? What about the connectors, the influencers, and those who are open to change? Have you found your own way of accelerating the culture change?