The Secret to Sustaining Culture Change

February 29, 2024
February 29, 2024 Jamie Notter

THE BOTTOM LINE:

In order to sustain culture change, you need to do a mix of change action items, some focused on making the change real, and others focused on making it permanent. Map out a sequence of quick wins, meaningful improvements, and big ideas, and your culture will change more quickly, and not backslide to the way it was. We do this in our culture design work.

THE DETAILS:

Our new book is titled Culture Change Made Easy, and I’m sure some of you are skeptical. Conventional wisdom has told us for decades the culture change is hard, takes a long time, and frequently fails.

It doesn’t have to be that way. One lesson we have learned in helping organizations change their culture is the importance of varying your culture change efforts to include a mixture of three types of action items:

  • Quick wins
  • Meaningful improvements, and
  • Big ideas.

Quick wins are the proverbial low-hanging fruit. These are action items that can be accomplished easily and quickly. This is critical for sustaining culture change, because it makes the change visible. If you announce that you are trying to make your culture transparent, but all you do is spend the next 12 months rolling out a new project management system, your people will have given up on you because they didn’t see anything changing. So while you’re rolling out the system, be sure to make visible changes, like sharing notes from senior team meetings, or convening an “Ask the CEO anything” town hall. Those visible actions will make people aware that you are serious about the culture change.

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But remember, you can’t ONLY do the quick wins. If that’s all you deliver, then your people will conclude that you’re only giving lip service to culture so you can check the box. So you’ll want to roll out some “meaningful improvements” as well. These are more like medium effort action items that can be completed in a matter of months. Rolling out a training program in conflict resolution is an example. It’s not a quick win—it needs some budget, you have to research trainers, and then you have to schedule the sessions so everyone has a chance to participate. But you can get it done faster than rolling out that new technology. It’s important to have these meatier interventions happening on a regular basis.

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And then there are the big ideas, like the new project management system. These are important for cementing the culture change and making it permanent. If you only do the quick wins and meaningful improvements, you run the risk of the culture quietly reverting back to the way it was. The big ideas will anchor your new culture and prevent it from sliding. Hiring a VP of internal communications was a big idea one organization deployed in order to make their culture more transparent. That’s a six-figure investment, and the employees really noticed.

When you map out a sequence of action items that cover all three of the levels we just discussed, then you will find the culture change to be much easier than you expected. This structure is built into the Culture Playbook model that we both discuss in the book and use in our Culture Design projects.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.