How to Lay the Foundation for Culture Change

Written by Jamie Notter on August 13, 2018

Culture change is not rocket science. Conventional wisdom may say that it is hard, that it is undefinable, or that it takes many years to accomplish, but I disagree. People participate in culture change all the time—they just don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.

My business partner, Maddie Grant, and I have been doing change work in side organizations for twenty years. Initially, we were each being called into organizations to solve specific business problems, but we quickly learned that our real job was shifting culture. I have learned over time that there are some key building blocks that must be laid down before moving forward with culture change. Pay attention to these steps, and you’ll pave the way to success.

Create a Culture Team

Culture exists, of course, in every corner of your organization, but you can’t have EVERYONE doing all the work related to culture change at the same time. So your best bet is to create an internal team that will drive the effort. I recommend curating a group with as much horizontal and vertical diversity as possible. Having team members from across the board allows the culture conversation to spread into all corners of the organization. And having multiple levels in the room means that each layer of the hierarchy is able to see the culture issues from a different perspective, which is key.

That being said, make sure the culture team has a strong connection to the most senior level, and specifically the CEO. As a good CEO friend of mine has said, the CEO can’t single-handedly drive culture, but they can kill it in a heartbeat. Make sure the CEO is aware of your work and has the opportunity to shape it along the way.

Define Your Existing Culture

When you start moving down the road of culture work, you’re going to be tempted to immediately dive into your vision of an ideal culture. Resist that temptation, and instead focus intently on what your culture is, here and now. Before you can change, you have to get crystal clear on “what is.”

I worked with a client that focused heavily on innovation. They were great at having conversations about creativity and future thinking and innovative ideas, and they wanted to focus on those components of their culture. When we got a little bit further into the weeds of innovation, however, they realized that while they talked a good game at the concept level, they weren’t very strong when it came to the action side of innovation—things like experimentation, risk-taking, and beta-testing.

It was crucial for them to look at the bigger picture of their existing culture and locate the missing pieces in their quest for innovation. They had to step back from ideas and into process before moving forward.

Success Drivers

And when the time comes to talk about your ideal culture, you MUST connect it to your success drivers. What is your superpower? What variable has a disproportionate effect on your organizational outcomes? What makes a difference to the organization and your members? Success drivers are the factors that lay the foundation for your success. It is imperative that the culture you create is completely aligned with what makes you successful.

I once had a client that believed wholeheartedly in inclusion. The association was formed for the purpose of including those who were otherwise left out of their industry, so inclusivity was at the heart of their work. But when they were designing their ideal culture, they realized that their emphasis on inclusion was actually slowing down their decision-making processes. Their members wanted them to be nimble and ahead of the curve, but including every voice in decision-making processes was getting in the way. Their success driver was figuring out how to hold onto their inclusive values while moving faster as an organization.

In the end, they realized they needed to radically change their approach to project management. They are now rigorous in defining exactly who is responsible for decision making, and they have no problem excluding others from that process if needed. And that is how culture change works. You get clear on a priority for your culture—one that is connected to what drives your success—and then you simply start changing processes, and structures, and even technologies in ways that make the new culture both real (immediate, visible) and permanent (long-term, infrastructure).

It’s definitely hard work, but it is within our grasp—and pays hefty dividends.