Real Leaders

How to Evolve a Workplace Culture


It seems that nearly every week someone, somewhere in the world, declares that they’re transforming. Indeed, the latest Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey shows that 44 percent of organizations aren’t just transforming, but they’re planning radical transformation. Yet, all too often — like British politicians and Brexit — they seem to have no idea what it means or how to do it.

I recently spoke to a Chief Information Officer (CIO) at a conference who asked my advice on how to get engagement for a significant digital transformation program. These are the questions I asked and the answers I received:

ME: What are you transforming?

CIO: Our technology.

ME: Yeah, but what are you transforming?

CIO: We’re implementing a new ERP and using new ways of working.

ME: OK, but what are you actually transforming?

CIO: Ways of working.

ME: From what to what?

CIO: From waterfall to agile.

ME: OK, so no waterfall projects anymore. Everything will be agile?

CIO: Well, …yah…there will still be some waterfall projects.

ME: So… what are you actually transforming?

Of course, the straightforward answer to my question is “the culture.” When I asked the CIO what he was doing to redefine the culture to realize the value from the new ERP system, he answered, “We’re sending everyone to a training course.”

Sending people to a course isn’t wrong — but it represents an old command and control approach, which fails to recognize that behavior change is the foundation for meaningful culture evolution. This means that tooling people up with the latest technical approach to delivery is only one small part of a larger piece of culture work. 

Yes, transforming the behavior of individuals can be hard work, which is why most organizations avoid it. Others might use lower headcount numbers when measuring transformation, rather than gauging the overall willingness of their people to embrace new ways of behaving and working.

For an organization to ensure that its people are fit for the future of work, it needs to allow time for them to define what the new, vibrant cultural state will require, and then hold them accountable to it.

How to evolve a workplace culture 

Successfully implementing a cultural evolution in a workplace requires six essential elements:

1. Make a sound business case for change. This will answer the “Why this? Why now?” questions and provide a foundation on which the activity required to deliver the change can be built. It’s not enough to say, “We need to change our culture,” but, like everything else, a sound rationale is needed so people can buy into it.

2. Involve everyone in a collaborative definition exercise. Workplace culture is the sum of everyone within it. Therefore, everyone needs to be involved in its definition. And nothing says, “This is different!” more than taking everyone off-site for two (or more) days and running a series of engaging exercises to do just that. The output will be a social contract (or culture deck) that accurately describes what staff needs from each other to be successful.

3. Lead the effort through a senior staff member. A senior executive within the business must be the catalyst behind the activity. This indicates the importance of the activity to the organization as a whole. 

4. Demand a growth mindset from the entire team. More than half of culture transformation efforts fail either because senior executives don’t model the agreed-upon behavior or employees defend the status quo. In other words, cultural transformations fail when the organization allows people to get in the way of progress. For cultures to evolve, everyone must be on board and be willing to do things differently. In those cases where staff remains entrenched in old ways of working, senior management must address their performance. But if senior executives show reluctance to change, the transformation is a lost cause.

5. Create a strong vision and definition of the future state. An aspirational statement, created by the team that motivates, inspires, and ensures those who are part of the culture understand what’s required of them will align individuals with the new culture. Articulating a vision will communicate how each employee contributes to the success of the organization. Employees should be able to draw a straight line from the work they do to the vision.

6. Provide clear, unambiguous communication. To achieve successful cultural evolution, high-level communication throughout the effort can curtail stress and anxiety among staff. Set expectations, not just about the culture definition activity, but also the personal change needed. This extends far beyond a blast email or displaying a poster written in Comic Sans font on a noticeboard. Regular communication from those accountable for the cultural evolution will help people believe in the change, feel part of it, and understand what’s required of them.

If organizations tell themselves that culture change will be hard, then that’s precisely what it will be. However, those organizations that dare to make it the essential thing and who are willing to stand behind its implementation will reap the rewards. 

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