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Author  Martin Stretton – Transformation Programme Director, NFER

May 26, 2022 |

 10 min read

  • Article
  • Organisation
  • Business solutions
  • Processes
  • MSP

Arguably the most powerful organizational change is also the most intangible: its culture, based on shared attitudes, behavioural patterns, and values.

It can also be the most difficult thing to change, making the introduction of new systems and processes easy in comparison.

Entrenched ways of working can be tough to challenge, and they are often ignored until there’s a problem, coming generally down the pecking order behind more tangible factors. For example, companies can focus relentlessly on revenue, but measuring and tracking how its culture is performing and contributing to the bottom line is less evident.

The challenge of culture change

While elusive, there are elements of culture becoming more prominent for organizations, such as moving to a more externally oriented and customer focused organization.

But this can expose different cultures within the same enterprise. At a previous employer, when different divisions were merging, one set of people believed it was necessary to be customer-led while others felt that, as technical experts, they knew best what the customer needed even before they did.

Understanding these different perspectives shows where healthy challenge is needed between teams to achieve a balanced, integrated business. It also needs people who are open to change and new ideas, see the bigger picture and are willing to do things differently in the best interests of the company and its customers.

We must, however, acknowledge the fear that comes with culture change and work to overcome people’s reservations.

Five steps to successful culture change

While there are many changes that organizations need to make to effect culture change, here are five key things to consider:

1. Be more outwardly focused

    It is all too easy to get immersed in the day-to-day development and launch of products and services and become inwardly facing. But does the market still want what you provide? Staying in touch with the market and continuing to give customers what they want is an ongoing concern. 

    2. Be less centralized and more empowering

      Leaders will always need controls, but by being less “command and control” they can define the scope of what people need to do and enable/empower them to do it. The servant leadership idea is about giving direction but allowing your people to find out how to get there and – in doing so – helping them to grow and flourish.

      3. Be quicker to make decisions

        Being ever more agile is important to remain competitive and meet changing customer needs. Leadership teams must remove the barriers that no longer serve the business and allow people to take quicker actions.

        4. Be less political, more open

          Increasingly, people want an open, safe environment where leaders are willing to be truthful about where the company is and welcome healthy challenge from staff. When things are not going as planned, people need the ability to say so.

          5. Be less risk averse, more tolerant

            Traditionally, there has been a pursuit of perfectionism and fear of getting things wrong in organizations. Instead, be bold and recognize that there are opportunities as well as threats. Successful companies have shown you don’t need a perfect product “out of the box” if you listen to customer feedback and adapt, fail fast and improve as you go.

            Culture change and best practice

            How can best practice support successful cultural change?

            For example, the target operating model in Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) is about clarifying what the future will be – and an important part of the organization is the culture.

            It comes down to the senior management team being clear about what culture and values will be part of the target operating model.

            In one company example, a new operations director introduced the mantra of doing things better and cheaper. The emphasis was on improving what the organization did and it became central to the culture. And among my fellow managers, there was a tangible moment when it was clear things were getting better and that we were part of something important.

            In another example, I found a culture of fear where colleagues felt unable to openly ask for help or advice. This made their office space eerily silent! But when we started working together to improve processes and using data to track progress and creating opportunities to share experiences and learnings, there was a buzz in the office and people were talking. This is where positive culture change became suddenly tangible.

            The “secret sauce” in culture change is how senior management exemplifies the chosen values. An organization’s culture reflects its senior management – so it’s not just about changing the organization, it’s about how you will change to reflect the organization you want to be.