Recently I attended a Comotion breakfast where their framework for building  a culture of innovation was discussed. It led me to thinking about culture change.   It is one of those phrases which could easily pop up in Lucy Kellaway’s column on business jargon in the FT.  Whether it’s the famous, although apparently incorrectly appropriated, Drucker quote ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ or Johnson & Scholes’ Culture Web, much has been said, theorised and analysed in management literature on this topic, but how much is understood? I am no culture change guru but I have been involved in organisations attempting to change culture and have some thoughts on what does and doesn’t work.

Organisation culture, ‘the way we do things round here’ is something that is tangible without it needing to be named.  It lurks beneath everything that happens, influencing how people go about their work.  Underpinned by values and beliefs we can see the behaviours demonstrated and receive subliminal messages about what is really important.  Examples such as ‘first in last out’ attendance, meetings with more technology on the desk than an Apple Store or the fashionably, at least 10 minutes late for meeting etiquette, it doesn’t take long to see what is valued in an organisation.  While it is easy to see, changing it is not so simple.

  1. The Reality Gap. One of the problems with changing culture is the gap between the stated values, implied culture, and what actually happens on a daily basis.  The pre-requisite for any culture change is honesty.  Organisations claim to have a ‘no blame culture’  yet fear of reprisal limits any real risk taking. In one role I reported to a senior leader that optimism bias was perceived in a programme team.  This preference for optimism revealed itself as I was advised that I was mistaken in a less than constructive tone with no interest in the evidence.  In a culture of innovation, failing fast and the ability to pivot when a different direction is required, are crucial.  At the start of the culture change venture, honesty about the tolerance of risk and scope for people to try and fail are essential. The same can be said of the organisation’s propensity to celebrate.  Are wins recognised or ignored in favour of the latest challenge?
  2. From the top. The culture change project is an interesting phenomenon for two reasons. It is much more effective when engaging employees in a new paradigm to talk about what it is you plan to change rather than talking about ‘culture change’.   In addition, changing the culture of an organisation requires engagement across the organisation which is led by the leadership team.   Whilst some effort is required to plan and co-ordinate this change effort, the messaging and engagement needs to come from the top, not the designated project team or consultant hired to support the effort.  It cannot be delegated or outsourced completely.
  3. Hearts and Minds. In the current political climate repeating the favourite buzz phrases is a recognised strategy for communicating with the electorate, ‘make America great again, ‘strong and stable’and ‘for the many not the few’ are some of the recent favourites. We’ve heard these phrases repeated and they can work for a short time. If we want to change what people believe in, what they care about and what they do in the longer term, it takes more than a sound bite.  To motivate people to change or buy in to a new culture, hearts and minds need to be won.  This can be done through clarifying the need for change whether it’s a positive change towards a new future or a move away from a potential crisis.  It also requires listening to find out what the barriers may be, even if they are only perceived and continuing dialogue and support for individuals through the change.
  4. Actions and words. All talk and no action doesn’t work.  Telling people that they need to be more innovative when it takes three levels of sign off to change the brand of coffee in the kitchen doesn’t work.  If the systems, processes and language of the organisation does not support the new culture it won’t stick.  If people are on board and see that things are actually changing, they will start to look for opportunities to work differently.
  5. Change or move on – a valid choice. Can we change the culture with the same people?  Absolutely but it is also possible that some people will not hop on board willingly.  The culture may move in a direction that is too uncomfortable of incongruent with their personal values.  It is important to support people that are not going to join you on this new venture and without blame or shame.  Help them move on to somewhere more suitable for them.  It is also  important to ensure that recruitment campaigns reflect the people you want in the company and that the development programmes reflect the competencies required for the future.

Culture change can work well or an organisation can simply pay lip service to it.  If you’re looking for the former, the above factors are worth serious consideration.


debbie fisherDebbie Fisher is a change professional with over 15 years experience in leading change in organisations including DWP, House of Commons, Ofcom and BBC. This ranged from developing and implementing new organisational strategy, introducing new technology, improving electronic information management, reviewing business processes and complete business transformation. She worked in a variety of roles including project, programme and change management and is a qualified practitioner in all.

With a passion for developing and supporting people, Debbie facilitates change and growth in individuals as an executive coach. She is a neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, EMCC member and is currently completing a PgC in coaching and development.   Based on her experience Debbie also supports organisations to embed lasting change, delivering courses in change leadership and working with leaders to understand the implications of change for them and their people, identifying practical steps to make transitions as smooth as possible.