Culture change is a journey, not a destination
For organizations seeking to become more agile and innovative, cultural transformation is often the most overlooked – yet more challenging – aspect of organizational change. Transforming a company requires new mindsets and behaviors that are usually in conflict with “how we do things here.”
How are you regularly evolving your company culture?
Culture change can’t be achieved through a top-down mandate; it requires participation and collaboration. Most importantly, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Leaders often fall into patterns of mass change rather than iterative progress. Instead of approaching culture change as moving from the current to the desired state, focus on continually evolving your culture.
The Problem with Focusing on the Destination
I often tend to use the phrase “culture transformation” or “culture revolution.” I’m guilty, too. We were all trained to focus on the shift – to move from one point to another. However, evolving a company culture is not a one-time thing, but a lifetime journey.
We tend to think that transforming a culture is like a journey that we can control. You enter the destination on Google Maps or Waze and voilá – you can anticipate how long it will take you, determine which is the most direct route, and plan everything ahead.
However, culture change is more like sailing than driving. You can still use a GPS/ chartplotter and create a waypoint to get from point “A” to point “B” – the problem is that there are many factors that you can’t control. Unexpected storms, waves, currents, winds, and many other elements will affect your navigation. You’ll have to adapt, course correct, and maybe even change your destination.
Building on the above metaphor, the notions of “change” or “revolution” not only create an illusion of control but also seed more fear and resistance than excitement. People focus on the loss associated with change. They are concerned that the transformation will harm their identity, narrative, or competence, among others.
Here are some behaviors to avoid so you don’t amplify the loss associated with change.
Focusing on the destination, not the journey. This approach makes the gap between the current and future state seem bigger than it is, increasing anxiety and frustration. Focusing on the journey, on the other hand, encourages people to enjoy the ride; it’s an invitation to appreciate the achievements as progress is made.
Creating a divide between the old and new. An effective culture evolution requires integrating elements from the past with new ones. Yes, some behaviors need to be eliminated to make room for the new. However, not everything needs to be killed or replaced – a culture evolution requires an “Yes, and…” approach to integrate what might seem conflictive.
Overlooking the power of subcultures. The culture of your organization is not monolithic; it’s the result of several subcultures working together. While everybody must be aligned around a shared purpose, values, and priorities, subcultures need freedom to evolve and grow. Both the main culture and the various subcultures should feed off each other rather than compete.
How to Evolve Your Company Culture
Designing a workplace culture is a collaborative process, as I wrote here. Some people associate the word “design” with control. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Evolving the culture is a journey through iterative advancements. Culture design requires setting the stage so desired behaviors can emerge organically, not by mandate.
A company culture evolves when it develops in a direction that’s beneficial for the people, community, and business. As Barry Phegan wrote, “The process mirrors biological evolution, where genetic changes survive because they are advantageous to the species. Similarly, desirable corporate changes are those that ensure the health and long-term survival of the company.”
1. Aim for quick wins, not just the end destination
In this HBR article, the authors share how movement makers recognize the power of small wins. Research shows that movements don’t start with a call to action, but with an emotion. Dissatisfaction with the status quo plus the realization that power structures and organizations won’t address the problem are what drive people into action.
Leaders usually get caught in the big picture – the dream they want to accomplish – and fail to share examples that will inspire people.
As Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule explain, “Instead, they need to spotlight examples of actions they hope to see more of within the culture. Sometimes, these examples already exist within the culture, but at a limited scale. Other times, they need to be created.”
Most culture change initiatives fail because they fail to change human habits.
When Dave Brailsford was put in charge of the British cycling team, the challenge was anything but easy. To turn around a half-century Olympic draught, he had to change his team’s habits. He could have changed everything overnight, but chose a different approach instead. Rather than going big, Brailsford aimed for quick wins: 1% improvement in every possible area: training, nutrition, travel, equipment, etc.
The compounded effect of small quick wins paid big dividends, turning the British cycling squad into one of the most successful teams in history.
2. Map your culture – Assess and prioritize changes
Smart leaders resist the temptation to change things before understanding the role they play. As the African proverb goes, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.”
Nothing will ruin your chances more quickly than the failure to understand your culture – both what’s working and what’s not. When helping clients design their culture, we first map the current culture through the eyes of different stakeholders and groups. The full picture emerges when you can uncover the gaps between different perspectives and subcultures.
The next step is to review the resulting Culture Design Canvas and assess each of its 10 building blocks. Which elements are working? Which need to be clarified or improved? Which areas are in trouble and need to be transformed? After assessing the key elements, you can discriminate between what is and isn’t working, then focus on addressing the most critical areas.
Assessing your current company culture is crucial to prioritize which elements need to be tackled first. Rather than trying to change everything, focus your energy on the areas that need more attention – especially those blocks that are critical, such as Purpose, Core Values, and Psychological Safety.
3. Leverage what’s already working
Workplace culture is not a problem to be solved or fixed. Most organizations have both positive and negative aspects; leverage what’s working. When leaders focus on what’s broken, people get defensive and negative. Rather than opening up, they feel under attack and try to protect the culture they know.
Culture change feels like building something from scratch – like tearing everything down and starting from zero. Culture evolution, on the other hand, is more like renovating a house; you are renewing the look and functionality while leveraging the existing foundation and structure.
A few weeks ago, after facilitating a culture mapping session of IKEA with current and former employees, the majority ended on a sad note. Most people felt the company had changed for the worse. It wasn’t the usual resistance but employees felt that critical elements of IKEA’s culture such as transparency and openness had been replaced with secrecy and top-down control. When it comes to the transformation, employees are only informed on a need-to-know basis – no one is sharing the ‘why’ behind the new direction.
Building on what’s already working doesn’t mean ignoring issues, but using the good in an organization as the foundation to build what’s next.
4. Involve more than the CEO in the journey
Leadership plays a key role in driving culture. However, the “how we do things here” is the result of all employees’ actions, not just what managers define or want. Designing the culture (and, most importantly, helping shape the culture) is a collaborative, co-creation act.
Involving people guarantees leaders get to see a broader and more realistic perspective of the culture. Senior executives usually have an idealized view of their culture – they are infatuated with the future state and lose perspective of reality, while frontline employees see the day-to-day problems that managers miss.
There’s a more important benefit of involving people along the way. When people are part of the design process, you don’t need to ‘sell’ them the new vision – they already bought into it while helping co-create it.
Involving others helps build a more diverse and innovative culture while making the journey more interesting.
5. A culture evolution require being fearless and patient
Cultural transformation starts with your own transformation. As a leader, you can’t expect others to change without you doing so first. Model the behavior you want to see in others. Without individual change, there’s no collective change.
Fearless leaders focus on doing what’s right over what’s easy.
Smart leaders are patient, too. They resist the temptation to jump to a solution too quickly and know that structural changes take time. The journey toward cultural transformation is not linear; at some point you’ll feel that things are stuck. At others, people will move faster than expected until you hit another bump in the road.
Building the right foundation can take a few months, but getting the results you want will take years. As the saying goes, “Go slow to go fast.” Design the right environment for long-term success.
“You’ve got 90 days to change culture before it starts changing you”, Jeffrey Katzenberg said when he was charged with turning around Disney’s Animation Studio back in the 80’s. During those three month he built the foundation that helped him create the Disney Renaissance 10 years later.
Don’t try to change everything at once. Focus your energy, aim for quick wins, and build momentum.
Your Culture Evolve When People Help It Evolve
People want to work in more human, agile, and innovative organizations. By designing a purpose-driven culture, you don’t need to convince anyone because you’re already inviting them to be part of something bigger than themselves. That’s the most effective method of motivation.
Document, not only the current or desired state, but also the evolution of your company culture. Use the Culture Design Canvas to capture your culture in one page and update the evolution of what you stand for.
By focusing on the journey, you open the door to increased participation and collaboration. People don’t just want to have a say, but also to share their ideas and help the company evolve. Who wouldn’t want to help shape a future that would affect their motivation, careers, and wellbeing?
Evolving the workplace culture is a never-ending journey.
Build on what’s working, strive for quick wins, invite people to actively participate, and be ready to make adjustments on the go. Make them feel part of the evolution rather than fear that a new culture will take over the old one.
Do you need help mapping or designing your culture? Schedule a free consultation call.