Culture – A New Hope for Your Change Initiative


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How focusing on your organization’s culture can positively impact the likelihood of your changes sticking and having the desired impact.

Humans are creatures of habit.  This creates challenges when you are trying to implement something new within your organization. We continue to underestimate the power of culture. When we don’t manage it, it can quickly unravel our change initiatives. When we consciously build and strengthen culture and values in support of change, we are engaging employees in the change journey, and ensuring our change sticks.

It is no secret that organizational change, big or small, can be difficult. Organizations not adapting to an ever-changing world will fall short of their strategic goals. To find out how culture can be a powerful instrument to engage employees in supporting organizational change, I reached out to one of Avenai’s  Partners, a change and culture expert, Laura Matthews.  She helped paint a picture of how living your corporate values (instead of just writing them on a poster) and empowering employees to take ownership of their culture are key to success. As a total bonus, Laura explained how Star Wars is relevant to corporate success!

How Does Culture Relate to Change and Why Should I Care?

Change initiatives fail all the time. Why you ask? Sometimes it’s because the change doesn’t mesh with the company culture.

Culture is most simply defined as, “the way we do things around here.” It is both the formal and informal processes and behaviours in your company – visible and invisible. It forms the foundation of how a company functions and how employees interact. Your corporate values are a set of principles that give you a sense of what is right.

To not take culture and values into account as part of planning your change implementation is risky. If your change doesn’t align with your existing culture and you don’t acknowledge it and plan accordingly, you will want to put your hard hat on early before you start banging your head against that wall.

For example, say you are the owner of a trucking company that delivers multiple items to multiple destinations in multiple trucks every day. Your company is full of trustworthy, hardworking truck drivers who take pride in delivering these packages, on-time, to customers all over the city. To help them do their job, you have purchased a GPS for each truck so that the drivers can enter all the destinations in the morning and the GPS can tell them the most efficient route. You send out a memo with instructions on how to use the GPS and have them installed.

When the truck drivers realize that there is GPS in their truck, they disable them instead of using them. When you ask one of your longest tenured drivers why, they tell you that it felt as though leadership didn’t trust them anymore. Employees were afraid to take breaks because they thought management would reprimand them for not working hard enough. All of their packages were delivered on time without a GPS, so why do they need them now? You, as the owner, have not taken your company’s values and culture into consideration and your change initiative, which had every good intention behind it, has failed as a result.

When we think of corporate change, we think of introducing new things into our working environment. As we add new things, we put pressure on the existing system. What we don’t always realize is that culture may be pushing back on the other side. At the beginning of a change initiative, leaders need to ask themselves and their leadership teams, “how will we harness our culture to drive change success?”

Define What is Working and What Needs to Shift

As culture is intangible, it is very difficult to define. I asked Laura what her typical approach is to start. “To answer this question, you first have to understand what your current culture is all about – not what’s written down in the glossy material – but truly understand ‘how we do things around here’ and ‘what values do we actually live?’” Your employees are the best source for this and should be involved in defining what is working and what is not. This can be done through focus groups, analyzing the results of employee engagement surveys through a culture and values lens, employee journey mapping, and a myriad of other techniques.

While employees might be very clear-eyed about the realities of your existing culture, it can sometimes be more difficult for leaders to get in touch with the ‘culture nooks and crannies’ of an organization.  “We often ask leaders to put themselves in other people’s shoes through visualization,” Laura explained. “We ask questions like, ‘what do you want your employees to say about working here’ and ‘what do you want your internal AND external customers to say about you?’ This offers the opportunity for leaders to see their organization through a different lens which can be very powerful. And don’t forget to ask, “what parts of your culture do you want to hold on to?”

Laura also noted that once you have the information about where your culture is, what its strengths are and where you want to shift, it is important not to impose ‘new culture’ on employees from the top down. It has been Laura’s experience that changes are more well received when leadership’s thoughts on necessary culture shifts are used as a nucleus of an idea and tested and built upon with other groups who are part of the organization or work with the organization (e.g. managers, employees, internal customers and external customers).

Culture is a shared experience throughout all levels of the organization. During discussions about change, it is imperative that the voices of these groups are heard and reflected in the vision for your culture. Involving those who are going to be most affected is critical to eventually shift the culture.  These conversations inform the focused and deliberate decisions and actions you need to take to start moving forward. Culture doesn’t change overnight. It is made and reinforced by a complex web of styles, personalities, processes, decisions, expectations, and actions.

Culture is Company Defined and Leader Enabled

Leaders play a key role in being the catalyst for a culture shift by modelling the desired behaviours – as soon as leaders start talking about values and culture, quite reasonably all eyes will be on them to see if they are acting in ways that align with those values and culture.

As the old saying goes, people leave managers, not companies. Managers in your organization have the most direct, day-to-day influence on the majority of your employees. It is important for managers to actively, and very intentionally, be aware of what is going on around them from a culture perspective. What is happening with employees on a daily basis? How are they interacting with each other? Most importantly, what does this mean for the organization’s values and culture if we are going to successfully shift?

Language is an important tool in getting employee buy-in. The words that managers and leaders use really do make a difference. Whatever language you have identified for your culture shift, use it every day. It may feel a little awkward to people at first to change language, but research has shown that language can be used to drive behaviour, not the other way around. By using the language in your culture or value statements in daily conversations, managers and leaders are connecting the dots for employees and linking everything back to the shift you are hoping to make.

Get Employees Involved to Earn Buy-In

But leaders’ actions and language are only half the job! It is also important to let employees come up with their own ways of shifting the culture and figuring out how to measure whether the shift is working or not. This can be done outside of corporate surveys. It can be done by managers asking their teams or department how they would like to measure progress toward nurturing this new culture. It can come in the form of monthly challenges, inter-squad recognition, group chats, etc. 

Recognition programs can also be a great way for your organization to reinforce its values and desired culture. These can be especially powerful when the employees have the opportunity to create the awards and nominate each other for them. Make the awards about exhibiting the values – if teamwork is one of your values, create a way of rewarding those often-unsung heroes who, through their teamwork, form the bedrock of your organization and your culture shift. The more the employees are involved in these programs the better they innately build and reinforce the culture.

The form these ‘culture conversations’ take really doesn’t matter. What matters is that employees and leaders at all levels are participating and involved in the process to help build the culture that everyone wants their company to have within the guideposts delineated by the company’s strategy. Getting everyone involved is key because trying to impose a culture is not a great change strategy. You are going to need everyone’s buy-in to be successful.

Laura’s Favourite Culture and Change Quote

“The one that stays with me is actually a Star Wars quote. For anyone that has seen A New Hope, it happens when they are going in and trying to blow up the Death Star. Things are getting a bit rocky and Pops just keeps repeating, “Stay on target, stay on target, stay on target”. OK, so that one didn’t have a great ending because he blew up in a giant ball of flames, but the point, and why it resonates with me, is it really is important to stay focused on where you want to go. Are the things you are doing advancing you in that direction more than taking you backwards? Persistence and stamina have a large part to play in the adoption of any change, especially for culture change.

Change and culture are inexorably linked, and you can use that to your advantage. While any culture shift is more easily written about than performed, there are ways to achieve the winning conditions for your change adoption. Remember that it is key to understand your starting point, know what is working and what is not, involve all levels of your organization in shaping your culture and, as Pops pointed out, “stay on target”.

Ryan Lauzon

Ryan Lauzon

Ryan Lauzon is a Manager at Avenai and a self-proclaimed culture enthusiast. When he is not interviewing his incredible colleagues, you can find him change managing IT transformations or working on Avenai’s mentorship program, mental health practice, charitable initiatives, or Avenai’s own culture!

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