Top 10 tips on effective culture change

nu_leaf | people & change consultancy

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2018 Growth Through People campaign.

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Dorothy Day is a strategic organisational change consultant who has worked with many different organisations going though transformation helping them to transform their cultures and operating models for sustainability and growth.  She is also a part-time HR Director working with ambitious SME businesses.


Culture is one of those business topics that can be quite nebulous.   People can tell if it’s good or bad but can’t always define it.   Dictionary definitions aside, in pragmatic business terms, culture is essentially the product of an organisation’s purpose, mission and strategy, its operating model, governance and the stance of its most senior leaders.  Another way of looking at it is simply ‘the way we do things around here’.

Culture can make or break a business/organisation.  It can be a hugely attractive selling point or create negative perceptions.  Indeed, when culture ‘goes really wrong’, it can result in high-profile outcomes or scandals which impact on the goodwill, reputation and sustainability of a business or organisation.   You only have to look at the recent headlines from Carillion and Oxfam to see what a significant role organisational culture plays.  And, if a business or organisation survives this, it can then take decades to turn it around again.

As such, many organisations have begun to prioritise the development of their culture alongside their evolving business strategy and operating model design, and as a strategic change consultant, I’ve increasingly been asked to support culture change, particularly where a significant business transformation programme is in place.    Here, I’d like to share my top ten tips for organisational leaders if you’re considering undertaking culture change in your organisation. 

  1. Tone from the Top - the culture of an organisation begins at the very top. The beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviours of the most senior leaders set the cultural tone of an organisation, whether they realise it or not.  Authentic leadership from the top is therefore critical to the success of any culture change programme as people will only believe the words if followed through with action.     
  1. Plan Ahead – often culture change is required due to a change in strategy or operating model including responses to regulatory or consumer requirements.  Anyone involved in business transformation will know that to ensure long-lasting change you inevitably need people’s mindsets, capabilities and behaviours to change too.  So, ensure you include cultural considerations early on in your thinking and planning for your operating model evolution/transformation.  This is the stage to consider what dedicated resources you may need to effectively drive the culture change and to secure them so that they can be involved in the initiation phase.     
  1. Analyse the Gap – it’s often the case that leaders know their organisation needs to change its culture and will likely have a vision for the future. It’s important, however, to be able to clearly articulate the starting point so that the size of the gap can be assessed and the interventions that may be required considered.  This is a step that is often missed, however, effective baselining allows you to test the hypothesis with the wider population and get their early involvement and engagement in culture change activity.  It also serves as part of the story-telling to inform your communication and recognition approaches. 
  1. A Clear Vision – it’s important for people to know why the culture needs to change so they can resonate with it (either positively or negatively). This is where a clearly-articulated vision will both help to communicate the desired culture and how it will help to achieve the overall mission and purpose of the organisation.   Keep the vision simple - three key headlines are typically what most people can remember without prompting. 
  1. Involve your People – Culture change is more likely to succeed when you involve your people from the onset. Getting your teams involved in shaping the vision, baselining the ‘as is’ and actioning the changes is the best way to engage and empower them to become jointly accountable for the change, so that it ‘sticks’.   
  1. Accept It Takes Time – do not underestimate how much time you’ll need to change an organisation’s culture. The gap analysis that you undertake as part of your baselining activity will help you to understand how much change you need, in which areas and how long it may take.  The main thing to be conscious of here is that culture change is unlikely to ‘happen’ on the date of a system ‘go live’ or launch of a new organisation structure.  Whilst you should identify some quick wins to maintain momentum and track progress, you need to be prepared for a journey of at least a couple of years for new ways of working to fully embed.  Tip: Create a plan that is broken down into activity on a quarterly basis to so that it isn’t so daunting and that you can track progress. 
  1. Leaders Make the Difference - leaders in any business, at whatever level, are critical to the success of a cultural change, in terms of their influence on decision-making, consequence management, relationships and communications throughout the organisation. It’s vital therefore that they believe in the vision and that they have the capability to lead the change through their own actions and behaviours. The change plan should always include leadership development as a key activity to enable the new culture to be embedded.  
  1. Be Brave – the new world ways of working will invariably feel uncomfortable at times, especially if the gap between the baseline and the vision is expansive. It’s therefore vitally important that senior leaders visibly encourage people to be brave in their day-to-day interactions, through recognising their own and others’ behaviours and challenging those that are not in-keeping with the ‘new world’, especially when making commercial decisions.  It’s equally important that leaders build trust with and amongst teams at every level so that everyone feels able to constructively challenge each other’s behaviours in the same way.  
  1. Maintain Momentum – as with all long-term change, there is often a frenzy of activity in the first few months, which can then fall flat once ‘business as usual’ or the ‘next big ticket’ takes over. Whilst cultural considerations should be pervasive and traverse all activities within an organisation, much like any change programme you can experience some fatigue.  To counteract this, it’s important to embed cultural objectives into team and individual performance plans and personal development goals and dovetail employee engagement activity into one overall plan. Progress updates should also be included in wider communications and reward and recognition schemes. If people can see progress and are recognised for their part in it, they’ll keep up the good work.     
  1. Review and Adjust – build in a review period (usually c. 12 months after a culture change is initiated) to capture the new baseline, review the ongoing gaps and check and correct the course as necessary, taking into account the strategic context.  Usually, after about 12 months there should be aspects of your desired culture that are beginning to feel more embedded, so it’s important to gauge the thoughts and views of your people again to assist you with your ongoing planning, prioritisation and communication.

And finally…. Be prepared for some hard work and a few blips along the way, stay true to the vision and practice what you preach!