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Its Easier to Give Birth than to Raise the Dead

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Can You Really Change a Deeply Ingrained Business Culture?

It is interesting to hear management consultants talk about changing corporate culture, as if it was a simple matter of communicating the desired change, defining expectations clearly, encouraging early adopters and rewarding success. Of course all of those things are important and can certainly help. But they are not enough to drive significant cultural change.

Individual human beings are complex. Small groups of people (families, sports teams, work groups) are exponentially more complicated. And large organizations? They are profoundly Byzantine and opaque.

Think for a moment about how culture change occurs in the real world, with a relatively simple situation such as a small family. With all of the interpersonal dynamics at play, truly changing the culture of a small family requires tremendous, multilayered engagement and long-term commitment from everyone involved. This isn’t meant to discourage you if you have embarked on a corporate culture change initiative, or are about to.

But you are much more likely to be successful of you face the hard cold truth. Deep cultural change for any group of people is going to be very, very challenging.

If you build on the experience of the few organizations that have been effective driving deep corporate culture change, there are a few key steps you should take to improve your potential for a successful outcome.

Know Exactly Where You are Starting

If you were to ask ten people in your organization to define the corporate culture, you would almost certainly get ten different answers. And if those people ranged from the executive suite all the way to the front lines of customer service, including representatives from operations, accounting, marketing and sales, you might very well get ten unique and contradictory descriptions.

So how do you change a culture that is not clearly defined, and possible perceived in many different ways by a broad range of individuals – all with different motivations, priorities, personalities and limitations? You can’t. So you have to start with a clear, complete, mutual and AUTHENTIC understanding of how everyone within the organization perceives the current culture.

You can begin with a corporate culture assessment designed to give everyone within your organization an opportunity to provide confidential feedback. Once you receive the results, the most important thing is to accept that perception is reality when it comes to culture. Even if senior leaders are scrupulously honest, if a segment of employees perceives senior leaders to be ethically challenged, then this is the existing culture – perception is reality. This doesn’t mean you can’t change the perception, but you have to start with accepting the existing “reality.”

Clearly Define Where You Want to Go

Your initial assessment of the culture within your organization should yield enough information to drive many robust conversations and diverse opinions regarding the most effective course of action. Involve a broad range of individuals in the process of deciding where and how to change your corporate culture. Remember that the process of deciding where and how to change is part of the change.

Most successful businesses have a bias for quick action, but in this situation the more effective route may be the slower, longer path. Don’t treat this like a product launch where the goal is to get to market quickly and make iterative changes based upon early customer feedback. Because with a corporate change initiative, if it isn’t thought through clearly, and if everyone doesn’t have a “voice” in the chosen direction, you can end up doing more harm than good.

Take Baby Steps – Teeny, Tiny Baby Steps

If you have executed a deep, thorough corporate culture assessment, and have spent a significant amount of time analyzing the results and having numerous discussions at every level of the organization, it would be common to end up with a fairly lengthy list of desired changes.

Select just a few initiatives, focusing on those that will be relatively easy to execute and implement successfully. It is imperative that the organization sees some early success once you actually launch the change initiative.

For example, if one f your objectives is to clarify communication of the company’s financial progress to all employees at regular intervals throughout the year, make sure you have actually achieved this result before moving on to more complex issues.