The Biggest Risk With Culture Change

When we work with organisations with a view to enabling a more positive, productive culture, there are two ‘streams’ of activities that we recommend.

One stream of activity relates to the implementation of improvement initiatives based on an assessment of the current culture. We believe leaders need to consider what kind of culture is needed to ensure theirs is a great place to work, and also to ensure the organisation is highly successful into the future.

Once this aspirational culture has been agreed upon, it makes sense to determine what the current culture is like in relation to those aspirational attributes. Clearly, there will be issues with the current culture, so improvement initiatives need to be identified and implemented.

The second stream of activity that we recommend relates to the aspirational culture. We encourage organisations to get maximum involvement in crafting the positive UGRs (unwritten ground rules) by which people would like to characterise the organisation (linked to the aspiration cultural attributes). Those agreed positive UGRs then need to become a key driver – clear messages need to be sent that this is where the organisation is headed, and leaders are serious about working to that end.

But there is a big risk with all of this.

We call this the ‘projectisation’ risk. Our view is that if culture change is ‘projectised’ then it is doomed to fail.

Signals need to be sent to everyone in the organisation that there is a strong and serious push to improve the culture. And many of the signals will be gleaned from the two streams of activity we’ve described above.

However, if culture change is seen merely as another ‘project’ then we have a fatal flaw. That’s because another ‘project’ can be seen as simply competing with the already busy workload most people experience. And if there is competition for people’s attention between revenue producing operational issues, and this ‘soft’ issue called culture, then most of us can predict where energy will be directed.

So what’s the point? The two streams of activity that we recommend are necessary but not sufficient for culture change. Leaders and staff need to ‘get’ the fact that culture change requires individuals to question their own behaviours in fundamental ways. Culture change is a way of being, not simply a list of activities.

To projectise culture change is to condemn it.