What Are the Basic Components of a Culture Change Project?

January 30, 2024
January 30, 2024 Jamie Notter

BOTTOM LINE:

Culture change is easier than you think. Start by identifying what your culture really is (you want unvarnished truth, not marketing copy). Then prioritize what parts of the culture need to change (make sure you connect these areas to what drives success in the organization). Then write up a playbook of culture change action items (some you start right away, the rest go in the backlog). Then start implementing the plays and make adjustments every three months. Finally, make sure you measure progress and communicate what’s happening to all staff. At that point, you’ve got a culture change program up and running and you just need to maintain it. This is the structure of all our culture design projects.

THE DETAILS:

Culture change feels daunting to many, but it needn’t be. Yes, it’s going to take effort—everything worth doing does—but it’s not mysterious, it’s not impossible, and it doesn’t take years to change. I find it’s easier to tackle when you can break it down into its component parts. Here are the basics.

Identify what is. Culture change always starts with getting a clear picture of what your culture is, right now. If you have the resources, you can run a culture assessment with employees, but if you’re small or don’t have the resources, then a series of focus groups or open conversations will work. Just stay away from high-level platitudes or overly positive descriptions of the culture. You want to get the honest truth about what’s going on inside the culture. Ideally you’ll be able to describe key patterns inside your culture, where you’re striving to be a certain way (agile, collaborative, innovative, etc.) but aren’t quite getting there.

Prioritize your change areas. The next step is to identify a small number of focus areas for your culture change. You can’t change everything at once, so you need to prioritize. Your focus here should be on fixing the parts of your culture that are getting in the way of success the most. Don’t pick innovation just because it sounds cool or you read a book on it recently. Pick innovation if you can make a clear connection between improving your culture’s ability to support innovation and your organization growing or succeeding more. If you write up these priority areas, make sure you not only describe them clearly (down to the level of behaviors), but also explain WHY this priority will drive success.

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Write up a culture change playbook. We use the playbook metaphor in our culture change work, because culture change is continuous. You’ll always be running plays, so you don’t need a perfect three-year plan to change your culture, you just need some plays to start with, and then a backlog of more plays you can go to over time. Identify some processes or some technologies that you could change or introduce that would move the needle on those priority change areas. What could you do differently that would start generating the behaviors you said you wanted to see when you wrote up those priorities? Get 5-10 plays that you can start right away, and maybe another 20 possible plays to keep in the backlog to start.

Run the plays and adjust quarterly. I suggest creating a roadmap that identifies your big culture goals for the year, but mostly focuses on what’s going to happen in the next three months. Is this the quarter where you will run that conflict resolution training? Or institute a new all-hands meeting? Name the plays (or progress on the plays…some of them take a while) that you want to do this quarter. At the end of the quarter, re-assess where you are. Maybe you were too aggressive and you need so take some plays off your list. Maybe something changed in your environment, and you need to pull one of the plays off of the backlog and start working on it next quarter. Be flexible.

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Measure and communicate. Once you are several quarters into running your plays, start thinking about how you are going to measure progress and impact of the culture change. You can always run another culture assessment, but I usually wait about two years for that. Your first step is probably just a simple staff survey that asks if they are seeing the behaviors you identified in your culture priorities. Then use that as an opportunity to communicate with all the staff about the culture work.

Rinse and repeat. At this point, you have a culture change program up and running, and now all you have to do is maintain it. You decide how and when you need to re-measure the “what is.” But you should always be on the lookout for areas of culture friction that might need to be addressed. The world changes, so even if you fix those patterns you saw in your first assessment, a few years later you might need to address them in a different way. So maybe at that point you need some new priorities. And all along you’ll be writing up and adjusting your plays. This is the work of culture management.

This structure, by the way, is what we use when we do a culture design project with clients.

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.