How Long Does it Take to Change a Culture?

October 29, 2021
October 29, 2021 Jamie Notter

Conventional wisdom will tell you it takes a long time to do culture change. I heard one association CEO declare that it takes a minimum of 8 years.

Both this CEO and conventional wisdom are wrong.

I know an organization with 300 employees that did a complete 180 on their culture in about 12 months. Granted, the CEO started by firing the entire management team, but hey, I never said fast culture change would be easy! And if you want to take 8 years, you certainly can. In truth, you should be managing your culture continuously, making changes whenever they are needed, so the “how long does it take” question is kind of misleading, in that sense. You’re doing it all the time.

Still, if you’re a leader that wants to take a fresh look at your culture and figure out how to make significant changes that will improve it, you’ll want to have a timeline, so here’s what you can tell people:

You’ll start seeing smaller changes in as little as six months, and the more significant changes won’t feel “done” for another 18 months, so give yourself 2 years.

Here’s how that plays out.

Step 1 is figuring out what you need to change, and that will take roughly six months. This would include assessing your culture, identifying culture patterns that are messing with organizational success, and then making a prioritized list of the processes, structures, or technologies that you need to change in order to bring the culture back into alignment with success. Technically you don’t need six months to do that, but you’ll need a bunch of people in your organization to do that work, and they already have day jobs, so you should be patient with their progress.

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Step 2 is to make your initial round of changes, and that can take 6 to 18 months to show significant results. This needs to include some small, quick wins so people can see visible progress (e.g., implementing town hall meetings via zoom), AND it should include the launching of larger, more complex projects (e.g., selecting and rolling out a new intranet for better information sharing). I call this making it real and making it permanent. You’ll want to get five to ten of these things going in that first year. And yes, with the “making it real” projects, you’ll see some change immediately, but I give this one a 6 to 18 month time frame because it will be that long before you see a major shift in your culture.

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Step 3: Measure, rinse, and repeat, and that takes forever (but in a good way). Once you’re about six months into your culture change projects, be sure to start measuring what’s working and what isn’t, because you may need to stop some efforts and start some new ones. You’ll also want to tie the culture change to organizational KPIs. There’s no point in changing culture unless it makes things better. You may need to run a new culture assessment towards the end of this part of the cycle (at the very least, put that in your budget). Then you can develop your next round of culture change projects and start again. As I said, real culture management is continuous.

Our Culture Design project typically follows this timeline, though we tell every client that if they need to increase the speed, that is absolutely possible—they just need find a way to devote internal attention to it. But no matter how long it takes, you won’t get any change if you don’t start doing the work.

 


Photo by Malvestida Magazine

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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