A Realist’s Guide to Culture Change

The phrase “we need to change our culture to be successful” has become a punchline for any executive pitching ambitious visions and transformation initiatives, IT-related or otherwise. What is unfortunately less common is any mention of how such a change in culture will happen and how to know when this ideal future culture has been achieved.

Foci is by no means a change management firm nor do I profess any kind of expertise in human behaviour or organizational theory. We are however experts in helping organizations adopt new technologies and methods where culture is an unavoidable challenge. Based on our experience in the trenches, I would like to offer a realist’s perspective on what taking on “culture change” means and what one can expect when committing to this lofty goal.

Culture = People

We can’t talk about culture without defining it first. Culture is an abstraction of what the default behaviours and tendencies of a group of people are. Those behaviours and tendencies are either learned and developed in reaction to how an organization is built and managed, or inherent in the people that are being hired.

When an organization sets out to change its culture, it must accept the reality that it will likely result in a turnover in people. The culture that you desire won’t resonate with everyone in the organization. And a strong culture is built by people who naturally buy into it rather than by trying to hard sell it to someone. Therefore, it’s best to ensure that you are prepared to deal with an increase in turnover and hiring as a part of this commitment rather than assume that a new culture can be achieved without big changes to the workforce.

Culture Requires Nurturing

Executives can’t really dictate the culture of an organization the same way parents can’t really dictate the personalities of their children. An organization’s culture develops based on how people react to and are motivated by that organization’s structure, management style, processes, facilities, compensation model, other employees, and countless other factors. Any attempt to try to define a new culture without looking thoroughly at all aspects of the organization which enabled the current culture would be flawed.

Instead of asking how individuals can adopt the desired behaviours, the organization should ask what aspects of its current structure, policies, compensation, governance, rituals, and general work environment are contributing to the undesirable behaviours and then work to address those. For example, if an organization desires a culture of innovation, budget and approval processes will have to be updated to allow for more experimentation, frequent changes in project parameters, and faster decision making. This is a very organic and fluid process, so set realistic expectations and adapt the plan to how the people are reacting to the changes.

Stress = Negative Behaviours

High stress situations tend to push people to exhibit more basic survival instincts such as territorialism and combativeness. It is extremely difficult for people to adopt more desirable behaviours such as collaboration and transparency or take extra time to think about innovative solutions when timelines are aggressive and budget is tight.

People take time to learn new ways of working and making decisions. This means that efficiency and output will drop before recovering and even improving over the longer term. Project budgets and timelines must account for this and give people enough time to learn the new behaviours and repeat them enough times to become ingrained. It’s the classic “slow down to speed up” adage.

Change Starts at the Top

I am constantly surprised by the number of organizations treating culture change as an exercise whereby the executives look at how they can fix their workforce without also looking at their own behaviour. The culture of an organization is representative of how executives have made decisions over time.

If an organization wants to encourage a culture of taking responsibility, then executives must reflect this by taking actions such as increasing delegation of decision making and making their compensation more outcome-based. If more collaboration is desired, then open door policies must be adopted. Executives can’t just be the champions of change, but also become the examples of the desired culture themselves. The “do as I say and not as I do” philosophy doesn’t work here.

Achieving Success

We are extremely proud of the culture we’ve achieved at Foci. We’ve been deliberate in designing our organization and been very lucky in the type of people we’ve attracted and hired. Here are some of the things that we’ve done and learned about building a strong and innovative culture:

  1. Hire executives with diverse opinions and approaches, but very similar values. Your leadership should have different approaches to solving problems, but should see eye-to-eye on the organization’s core beliefs and philosophies;
  2. Hire for culture fit over pure technical acumen. It’s much easier to teach technical skills than modify behaviours;
  3. Constantly adjust and refine organizational processes and policies. Organizations and the people within them evolve over time. The processes and policies have to be tweaked to account for that;
  4. Create a relationship of mutual trust between our people and the company. Giving people the room to make decisions and exercise judgement encourages a sense of responsibility and ownership. Treat your staff like responsible adults who can make good decisions;
  5. Compensate people based on what you value in your employees. If you want a team that’s constantly upping their game, then compensate for personal growth and skills development;
  6. Invest in people. It’s not just training and some formalized mentorship program. Give people the time, resources, and the infrastructure needed to connect, collaborate, and share knowledge.

Culture change is hard, but by no means impossible. It takes a lot of commitment, attention, investment, time, and patience. By recognizing that the change is really building an organization that nurtures the desirable culture, “we need culture change” will become an achievable call to action rather than just an executive punchline.