Five lessons on changing your culture

Posted by David Miller

In this week's blog, David Miller - Founder and Chairman at Changefirst - discusses his takeaways from the latest Technology and Services World 2019 conference in San Diego.

During my time visiting the TSW19 conference, talking to attendees, exhibitors and listening to speakers, there has been lots of talk about the Tech Industry being disrupted. The list of ‘disrupters’ included Artificial Intelligence (AI), SaaS and the Cloud. One of the big additional problems the Tech Sector has is that they are adapting (or not) while simultaneously working with their customers, who, in turn, are struggling to adapt.

This means the term “digital transformation” was ubiquitous at the conference. And, right at the heart of this digital transformation discussion was the belief – shared by many Execs - that changing their organizational culture is core to making this happen. And, by and large they are right in this assumption. But, often they don’t always understand how hard this is to do and so under-estimate the resources, time and sheer perseverance needed to make it happen.

With this in mind, I am going to share with you five of the lessons Changefirst has learned about changing organizational cultures - in the last 24 years. But first a quick definition, to ensure we are all in the same place - Culture is the sum of a group’s behavior, values and beliefs. There are many definitions of culture, but let’s go with mine for the time being.

Health Warning – if you are incredibly bullish about changing your culture quickly and painlessly you should probably stop reading at this point.

1.      THE SUCCESS RATES OF CULTURE CHANGE ARE VERY LOW. Therefore, be very thoughtful about embarking on culture change. It’s very hard to pull off. Scenario plan for every other viable alternative. For example, in a conservative company with low change maturity planning, incremental change might be a better approach. It might appear slower than attempting to rapidly transform your organization, but it could be that the Tortoise really does beat the Hare.

2.      DEFINE THE BUSINESS OUTCOME. For example, if you want to move from being a hard-core Product organization to a more of a Service organization - How will you know when you have arrived? Once you have a clear measurable outcome you can identify the exact changes in people’s behaviors that will achieve your desired state. Note. I’m talking about behaviors not values or beliefs. The latter two are much, much harder to change. The successful change efforts we have seen tend to focus on changing observable behaviors.

3.      USE MVP. Big stretch, demanding targets have their place. But not right here. The MVP (Minimum Viable Product) idea works very well. Start with small plans in parts of the organization, test, refine and learn before you broaden the change program.

4.      LEADERS ROLE MODEL THE NEW BEHAVIORS and take an active role in leading the change. A strong lead indicator of culture change failure is when the HR department (and occasionally the CEO) are the only people talking about the new culture. Prepare your Execs to lead the effort and ensure their behaviors match their rhetoric. And, make your team leaders have brought into the change and have the skills to work with their teams before you ask them to work on enrolling their teams.

5.      LEARN HOW TO ENGAGE THE PEOPLE IN YOUR ORGANIZATION. By engagement I don’t mean communications (communications is important to build clarity, but it’s rarely engaging). If you want people to become committed to fundamental personal change then remember this – ‘people are much more likely to act their way into thinking, than to think their way into acting’. In other words, get them actively participating in planning and implementing. They need to be doing something not listening to something.


Successful culture change takes a long time. It involves most of your people, if not all of them and it is deep seated, hard work. If you get it wrong - your organization will land up looking like an Army Field Hospital, after the battle.

Remember, to focus on behaviors rather than people’s values. If you are in any doubt about the level of difficulty involved in changing people’s values, I have a small test. Identify of one of your own personal and important values, write down what you think drives this value (your beliefs). Then describe what would need to happen for you to change that value? What would someone have to do to get you to change?

There is much more to say about culture. But, do you agree with me? Or am I too cynical and you have some great culture change programs to tell me about? What has worked for you? I'd love to hear some success stories.

Comment directly on David's LinkedIn blog here

For more thought leadership you can follow David on LinkedIn here


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Tags: effective early engagement, Employee Engagement, sponsor engagement, staff engagement, digital transformation, change planning, starting a change project, changing culture

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