The 3 Levels of Change Required to Shift Culture

Have you ever wondered why the changes you tried to bring to your organization were not successful? Maybe it was simply because you missed a level of change required. To be effective, change must happen simultaneously at the organizational, team, and individual levels. This applies to any kind of change but is particularly important in the case of shifting culture.

1. Organizational level

This is the level that most organizations are comfortable with and the one that, consequently, tends to be focused on. In fact, I have seen many businesses just try to work at that level. Working on change at the organizational level is about systems and processes. One of my clients wanted to become more customer-centric and decided to implement a Customer Relationship Management system. Another had identified a need for increased empowerment: they changed their operating model.

This level of change is also about the symbols the organization chooses (consciously or not) to send a message about what is valued in the workplace. I recently helped an organization select the collective KPIs it had decided to introduce to foster collaboration, when until now employees had only had individual KPIs.

Organizations love working at that level because they are familiar with it – this is the nature of most of their daily interactions. They believe that it is easier and faster than working on the other two levels. You only need to look at the cost and time of some of those system changes to know that nothing could be further from the truth.

In shifting culture, this level of change is about ensuring your systems and symbols are aligned with the culture you are trying to create. It is also about the culture narrative you are using to explain to your people why the change is needed, what it feels and looks like, what is expected of them, and how they will benefit from the change. Working on this level of change is indispensable, but it is not the only one.

2. Team level

For many years I fell into the common trap of forgetting to work at this level of change or making it a lesser priority. I could not have been more wrong. Kurt Lewin said, “The immediate social group is the greatest determinant of behavior.” What this means is that you need every team in the business to change if you want the change to take hold. Because the team are the people you interact with the most, it is with them first that you can practice changing behaviors. Your team members can observe you in action and give you recognition and feedback. They can let you know whether you are heading in the right direction or not. They are the easiest pressure point for you to start behaving according to the new norm.

“Teams that find the right kinds of practices and reinforce them, time and again, by insisting on following them, have greater influence and creativity.”
~Jon Katzenbach

To embrace the change, the team needs to discuss the purpose of the change and what it looks like for them. It needs to look at its own style: Are they constructive enough or too reactive? Do they compete with each other or avoid the hard discussions? Do they show care for each other? Do they trust one another? With a measure of the gap (for example through a behavioral measurement tool), the team will be able to flex towards the right behavioral standards. Try to engineer “aha” moments in teams, because everyone experiencing the moments together will create a catalyst for change. What this means, practically, is that your change intervention needs a team focus during the journey. Of course, this starts at the top, with the executive team initiating the process. You can then cascade down the experience to other levels.

3. Individual level

I have kept the most important level of change for last. Without individual change, there is no change. Cultural transformation starts with personal transformation. In other words, culture change is the sum of all the individual changes that are happening in the organization. This is the level that many businesses shy away from because they feel it is too difficult, too slow, or too confronting.

“Culture transformation starts with personal transformation.”
~Larry Senn

Many changes that have happened to us as individuals are the result of a catalyst, something we’ve experienced: a health scare, a failure in a project, or exposure to different data. These events trigger a sustainable shift at the BE level (what lies under the surface of the water in the iceberg model), which in turn underpins a shift in behavior. This means two things in regard to culture change. First, it means that it is best to build a personal experience for employees that will allow them to change quickly. It also means that you need to create space for individuals to reflect on themselves, starting with management layers. A great tool for this is a behavioral measurement instrument that involves a 360-degree measure. This is often enough to create the trigger for change. What is their dominant personal style? What are the beliefs and assumptions they hold true and that drive them to display current behaviors? Which strengths can they use to shift their less productive styles?

This level is the one that will make change sustainable in the long term. It is also often the one that people remember for life. In actioning it, you are not only changing the organization for the better, you are also changing lives.

In summary

What level of change should you start with? Truth be told, the three levels are required and often at the same time. If not, you run the risk of sending contradicting messages about what is important. People will be confused, and the change process weakened. Without individual change, nothing will happen. So, start with the top of the organization, then cascade down to other levels of management while you are implementing system changes, and bring in the team element as you progress.

Have you experienced any of the three levels of change in a similar way? Do you have a different point of view? If you would like to share a comment on social media, feel free to use the LinkedIn or Twitter buttons below. In advance, many thanks.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

How to Accelerate Culture Change Across the Organisation

How to Accelerate Culture Change Across the Organisation

One of the most commonly asked questions in my work on culture is how long will the change take? When will we have the culture we need? There is no simple answer to this question because a multitude of factors can influence the speed of culture change across an organization. But there are things you can do to speed up the process.

It starts with being clear on the kind of culture you need to underpin your strategy. What values and behaviors do you need people to display to reach your business goals? Clarity of what’s expected will help leaders holding staff to account, and it will help staff to know whether they are doing the right thing or not. With leaders role modeling the very same behaviours they want to see in others, the change will have a starting point. But it may still take too much time for those business leaders who can’t afford to wait or are experiencing pressure from shareholders.

This is where the tipping point theory comes in handy. This theory has its roots in epidemiology. It says that once the beliefs and behaviours of a critical mass of people are engaged, the new ideas or behaviours will spread like a virus or an epidemic, bringing deep change at a fast pace. In his book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates that there are three factors for social epidemics:

  • The power of the few – You only need to work with a few individuals, a number of agents who will make a clear call for action, and who will mobilise their actions on the key players in the organisation.
  • The stickiness factor – The change must make sense to people. For culture, what this means is that staff need to understand why the behaviors they are being asked to display are going to make a difference to the business and their lives.
  • The power of context – The change will happen if it is articulated in the context of the business imperative or why the need to change to be successful.

Once the tipping point is reached, an amazing phenomenon takes place, whereby more and more people start adopting the new way of being and doing at an accelerated pace. When you have been working on shifting the culture for a few months, sometimes, years, this is something wonderful to witness. The change is visible, employees become more positive, and even the naysayers are changing their minds.

Research varies as to the percentage of employees who need to behave differently for it to catch-on. 35% is what is most commonly used. However, researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The minority belief becomes the majority opinion.

The consequence for accelerating culture change is that you only need to focus on a small number of people. An important part of the work will be to develop a strategy on how to reach the tipping point in the organization. Which people to enroll, convince, educate and maybe which ones to not focus on? Where are they? What positions do they hold? Where do they sit in relation to the values and behaviors you are trying to shift? Are they open? Are they trusted by others?

Here are some of the people you will need to consider in your strategy:

  • The leadership cohort. At the end of the day, culture is led from the top, and if the leaders do not role model the desired behaviours, there is little value in asking others to do so. The tipping point will not take place if only a few leaders are behaving appropriately. Find the role models in the leaders, and identify the others who are open to change and who you can work with. Bring them on board and build the tipping point within the leadership cohort. This is a great start.
  • Culture champions. Those are people who, in some way, shape or form, already role model some aspects of the desired culture. Enrolling them into the change process is a great way of building a community of people who are enthusiastic, understand how culture works, and can be used for a variety of change activities such as workshop facilitation and town hall meetings.
  • Connectors are network builders; they are the individuals with the shortest path to all other individuals. They control a lot of the flow of information and are a liaison between tribes and groups. They are very useful in spreading a message, but because they can also be bottlenecks, you need them on your side.
  • Influencers. These are the people whose impact is larger than their role or position because they are listened to or play a central role in the company. They can be the receptionists, a leader whom everybody respects, someone who has been in the organization for years, the IT people, or simply the cleaners. It does not matter who they are, they will play in crucial role in spreading the word. Some influencers can have very little reach but have great influence within the networks where they do have reach. This is why they need to be considered together with connectors.
  • Customers and external stakeholders. They are often forgotten, but they have a strong influence on what happens internally. Bring them with you on the journey, let them know what you are trying to achieve, and the external pressure will contribute to the change.
  • The board. I see more and more boards involved in the culture journey of an organization, from defining the culture to monitoring its risks. Some boards are directly involved in the day to day operations, others less so. However, they all play a critical role and represent a strong symbol of what is valued. They need to embrace the new culture and support leaders in the journey.
  • Finally, those of your people who are open to change. This will be the most useful cohort in terms of building a healthy tipping point. We are sometimes tempted to spend time on those who are reluctant to change. Don’t do it. Focus instead on those who you know will join the boat when they see it turning.

Build your tipping point for change as you would play a game of chess: think strategically, don’t move too fast, and analyse your pieces. Are your rooks and bishops open to change or should you focus on your pawns and knights?

Do you know who the role models are in your organization? What about the connectors, the influencers, and those who are open to change? Have you found your own way of accelerating the culture change?

I invite your thoughts and comments below.