So, you've identified systemic sore spots within your organization. Perhaps your leadership team is plagued by distrust. Maybe your processes aren't serving your goals, or you just can't seem to hang onto your prized players. As you become aware of your pain points, what's next? How does an organization embark on a holistic shift to set itself on the path to success?
Culture shift requires an explicit leadership decision to trigger change through strategic action. A poorly-led transition can sometimes feel like whack-a-mole - focusing on one perceived problem may only lead to the next, thus beginning a frustrating downturn and eventual abandonment. Culture shift takes patience, time, and adjustments along the way. While there isn't a silver bullet, the four items outlined below are imperative to success.
Understand the Current State
Visible signs of cultural malaise may lead to premature conclusions. What seems central may later prove to be a mere symptom of underlying causes. For example, a lack of awareness around an organization's micro-cultures may result in misguided assumptions about the current state, thus resulting in a skewed vision for the desired state. To combat such missteps, it is vital to mobilize an effort which thoroughly unpacks the complex layers of the organization, including attitudes, commonly-held beliefs, and behavioral patterns. Proactively building an unbiased understanding of the organization's current dynamics, interdependencies, and story will only save time and headaches as culture shift initiatives get underway. As Maya Angelou once said, "You can't really know where you are going until you know where you have been."
Have a Clear Vision
Successful culture shift is driven by a compelling purpose which each team member can visualize, identify with, and aspire to. To convey an abstract vision in concrete terms, desired cultural tenets must be aligned with specific, supportive behaviors. This will provide team members with a clear understanding of the "new world." In addition to relating directly to the organization's core mission, the direction of the culture shift should appeal to team members' sense of drive - it must be deeply personal and galvanize people to act.
Establish Widespread Ownership and Support
Culture shift touches each member of the organization, and those using a top-down approach are likely to encounter resistance to unilateral decisions. To convey universal ownership, leadership must instead build commitment to the shift through gathering and incorporating the feedback of individual team members. Additionally, leaders must consistently and visibly reward the culture-forward actions of teams and individuals. Leaders will benefit from partnering with each other during this process to align and provide one another with candid insight.
Reinforcing positive movement is the first step towards permanent change; however, an effort without ongoing measurement is akin to wandering in the dark. While measurement may seem to be a rigid component of culture shift, it is in fact key to flexibility. Successful organizations crave the feedback and data which tells them when it's time to adapt - key performance indicators and other tools enable shifting organizations to maximize valuable insight for decision making.
The considerations outlined above are foundational and should be used to plan subsequent efforts in performance management (recruitment, rewards, and reinforcement), team building, and of course, operations. Perhaps most importantly, organizations faced with the daunting prospect of culture shift are reminded that success is most often realized when teams embrace their direction while employing flexibility to pursue it.