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Business culture – is transformation right for your workplace?

How often do conversations about an important topic like business culture typically go nowhere?

How many thousands of dollars have been wasted on cultural change efforts which very seldom work?

The quick answers? Most of the time, and too many dollars!

Here is one of the big reasons business culture ‘transformations’ don’t work: often, no one clearly defines what is meant by ‘culture’. 

If they do, they don’t define the goal of the project that is driving the cultural evolution. 

Culture can be defined as ‘the pervasive values, beliefs and attitudes that characterise a company and guide its practices’.

Before starting any project focused on culture, it is crucial all parties involved are on the same page when it comes to this definition (or the definition they choose). 

If the project involves changing the culture, everyone needs to be clear and agreed on exactly what it is, within the organisation, they are trying to change, and what that looks like, once it is changed. 

A culture project needs to be run just as that – a project  applying the same discipline as would be applicable to any other project within your organisation.

So many organisations I am in contact with talk to me about cultural transformation. But when probed on the topic, they have very little detail about what they need to do differently and what is and isn’t working now.

It’s as though a brochure on business culture transformation has done the rounds and every organisation feels it needs to get on the bus and quick – ‘surely it will fix all our problems’.

The truth is, culture may not be your problem. But without real analysis, you will dive in without ever knowing this important fact. 

Leveraging business culture

What might be possible, if we stopped trying to ‘transform’ organisational cultures, and instead, started leveraging them?

Clients often tell me, “We need to transform our culture.”

Some want to be more innovative, while others want to be more consistent. Most want to introduce more accountability and collaboration.

My clients are convinced that a comprehensive overhaul of the culture is the only way to overcome the company’s resistance to major change.

If the current culture isn’t getting the organisation where it needs to go, intervention might be necessary, but transformation? Really?

Why not concentrate on figuring out how to optimise the existing culture’s best attributes?

What if we looked to implement and systematise new behaviours that fit well with the existing culture, rather than focus on stopping old practices and starting new ones.

Transforming means more major change. And as we all know, at least some of our employees do not do well with change. They oppose it, they fear it, they feel uncertain whenever it is around.

Leveraging, means acknowledging what is working within your existing culture and using that to your advantage.

It means building on business culture positives to promote and foster new and more productive behaviours, which feels much more like a natural step for most employees.

What is the perfect culture?

There is no perfect business culture!

Continuous changes in the marketplace, customer motivations and technology all point to the need to develop an adaptive culture.

Adaptive means a culture that changes and evolves. Logically, that then means that no one, consistent culture is perfect for every situation or set of circumstances! 

Culture is also unique to each organisation. 
While doing things a certain way can be very positive for one company, trying to impose the same culture on another organisation can be devastating. 
This is a reason why some leaders thrive and others fail miserably if their styles are contradictory to the environment.

If you look hard enough, most organisations will find they already have pockets of people who practice the behaviours they desire  the basis for their perfect culture for ‘right now’.

It’s possible to draw on these positive aspects of your culture, turning them to your advantage, and offset some of the negative aspects as you go. 

Leaders should focus on the areas of overlap between the current and preferred culture, in order for culture change to feel like evolution instead of revolution. 

This will make the necessary changes less scary and decrease resistance.

Exploit business culture strengths

Clearly, cultural change — and even transformation — is sometimes necessary. 

If an organisation isn’t getting the results it desires, it likely needs to first look at the management, leaders and strategy. 

But it’s far too superficial and ineffective to take a deficit-based approach to culture change, pointing out all the flaws. It’s much more powerful to assess the culture’s strengths and exploit them.

Of course, even in taking this approach, culture change is not a short-term process — it will take years of consistent and persistent effort. 

An organisation doesn’t become a more collaborative culture, for example, just because you announce “we have a collaborative culture” or when you stick a few teams of people together.

Rather than dismissing culture work as ‘soft stuff’, it needs to move to a high-priority. 

Let’s not fool ourselves when it comes to culture change. This is not a font change or PO Box change or something small and easy to implement. 

In changing culture, we’re taking on an HR project to change whole belief systems.

Carefully and strategically assess our organisations’ current culture, it’s main challenges and goals, and determine if leveraging your current culture, transforming your culture or looking at another area entirely, will make the most difference. 

Culture change checklist:

If you’ve made it through the analysis phase, and all the evidence points to business culture change solving part or all of your problem, work through this checklist to guide your approach:

Strategic vision – have a clearly and widely articulated view of the direction and purpose of the proposed change, that includes measurable and achievable goals.

Symbolic leadership – senior executives must behave in ways that are consistent with the new culture – always!

Management commitment – senior management must be committed to change and must be seen to be committed.

Communication – involve people and be honest and transparent.

Reinforce change – take every opportunity to convey the message