Changing Organizational Culture

Implementing Responsible, Long-term Culture Change

It's not unusual during branding (or rebranding) to discover the need for culture change. Here are some important things to keep in mind before striking out over this challenging territory.

As brand strategists, we have accidentally unearthed a need for culture change more times than we can count. There are many reasons why an organization may find itself staring down the weighty prospect of attempting to change its culture. Scandals that reveal woefully outdated mindsets, complacency due to success, cults of personality—the impetus for change in your company doesn’t have to be a catastrophe. In fact, seeing the need for change in the way your organization interacts within and without can come during the research phase of a branding effort. Regardless of what seeds the need for change, making that change lasting and company-wide requires planning, effort, sensitivity, and self-awareness. “Culture” is not a destination with a clearly drawn map, it’s not a single “policy” nor an “event.” Changes in culture are (often) the result of changes in behavior, and change is difficult. 

The question you face as a leader is how to spark change “from the top.” Change of this type calls for a leader who can excite both the need for change as well as the ability to help others see the value of that change.

Who is “Being the Change?” You should be.

Platitudes won’t evoke change. Mission statements won’t either. Change can’t be mandated with force, or for that matter, endless Fridays of Zoom Happy Hours. Cultural elements and rituals are important—one might argue, essential—but must be an organic outgrowth of vision.

It’s a gross oversimplification to say, but the truth remains: Long-term, meaningful change in an organization’s culture requires leadership with a vision. Leadership must inspire change because this is a hearts-and-minds proposition that must also be squarely in line with goals and structures that are both established and yet-to-be-created. It takes two levels of leadership to accomplish this.

At the top

Corporate culture sustainably changes when boards or top-level executives recognize the need for change and believe in its necessity with such force that it excites momentum horizontally. This doesn’t mean that the idea for change must begin with top management — it can come from anyone at any level, and often does. But the top must decide “this change is right for our organization, and we will see that it occurs.” Leaders use their power of influence, their understanding of their company’s strengths, and the power of storytelling to fuel that change. Without a stalwart storytelling force at the helm, organizational change is as unlikely to happen as a rudderless ship executing a straight path across the ocean.

The departmental level

Horizontal momentum refers to departmental leadership adopting the top executive’s vision as their own. 

Ultimately, it is ground-level leadership that makes the vision real in an organization. Processes, workflows, policies, incentive practices, sales structures, and more are the true, interlocking cultural elements that put up a formidable resistance to culture change. United departmental or business unit leaders can effectively counter that resistance; they can incite change by employing the aforementioned roadblocks as tools to unlock the future. 

Top management inspires with direction and the story of change. Business unit or departmental leadership operationalizes the story.

As any successful leader, manager, or coach will tell you, “That which is measured, improves.” And in organizations, we put incentives behind the activities we find profitable. Inspire and gain commitment from the lieutenants, so to speak before attempting to drive the organization as a whole in a new direction.

Change built on what?

Although you need to know what you desire to become, you also need to know what you are changing from.

Don’t crash the entire system. The salient point here is to keep the good, build on the good, and celebrate the good.

You currently have a functioning organization with an established culture. It took time to evolve. It’s important to realize that you aren’t recreating a new culture, but that you are evolving an existing culture. It will take time to seed and nourish, and the time spent is crucial to strengthening and reinforcing the evolution you seek to drive.

Consider the following questions: 

  • What positive personality traits does our organization hold as points of pride?
  • What positive personality traits are we known for externally by customers and vendors?
  • What specific products, processes, or actions do we engage in that are known as strengths (i.e. produce competitive advantage)?

The answers to these questions hold keys to what you want to maintain throughout your change process.

What’s driving the desired culture?

The long answer is, numerous complex interconnected elements, but let's focus on one: incentivization. Incentivizing change means developing new workflows that facilitate interactions in line with the change you wish to own. 

Even that was a complicated sentence. Let’s break it down:

“Incentivizing change means…”
Most of the readers of this article will be involved in a for-profit enterprise. The health, of course, of any such organization, is measured by its ability to gain profit versus lose revenue. Lose revenue long enough and… no more organization. The various stakeholders within your organization also work in this transactional mindset (we recognize that this mindset is just one of many that people bring to their work, but we believe it is a significant one): “When I give of my time, my effort, my intellect, or my emotions, I gain X.” 

Engaging in a culture change process is to embark upon a new kind of transaction with your organization’s stakeholders. “If you adopt this mindset, if you engage in these new practices and organizational behaviors, you will receive Y.” 

What promise can you make to your organization about adopting this change?

“…developing new workflows that facilitate interactions…”
This part of our statement gets to the raw, pragmatic heart of what your organization actually does. People come together and interact based on what your organization is trying to achieve. Usually, those interactions are designed by managers working solo or in managerial groups. “This role delivers document X to this group in order to complete Y.” 

Consider how your workflows are currently shaping your culture. What behavioral norms and language usage have evolved? These are your cultural elements; the symbols and reflection of your company’s culture. Consider the motivations of the parties involved. What happens when those motivations engage with each other? You are likely to make meaningful discoveries about your organization if you take this evaluation seriously. Workflow engagements that you previously thought were benign can reveal themselves as powerful points for change. In its simplest form, what we do and the actions we take every day often define much about who we are. 

“…in line with the change you wish to own”
This is our endpoint. How can you design new workflows or shape policies that can encourage new, positive behaviors? The most efficient way to look at this part of the process is to use it as a lens for the previous part. Here’s a suggestion; frame your workflows with the following rubric: “If we wish to behave in this way, we want to bring together this role with this role in this context / for this purpose / or to do this action.”

Measuring change while it’s happening

Earlier, we quoted that old saying, “That which is measured improves.” And it’s true: what you focus on becomes bigger and higher on your priority list. And if you want change to stick, you have to manage it.

Manage, not force. Encourage, not foist. The best way to do this? Measure and track, and publish the results appropriately. 

Attempting to mandate change will absolutely backfire. Push too hard and you’ll be rendered as The Culture Police. The result? The old way of doing things becomes more entrenched.

Good, old-fashioned fostering and nurturing happens when you facilitate change by offering resources for those responsible for implementing the change. “If management is asking for such-and-such, what tools are they giving me to accomplish it with?”

There are many ways to empower the change you wish to measure as it evolves: educational events, workforce development programs, live chat, phone support, live HR support, etc.

What have you learned about culture change?

These are just a few of the insights we’ve gathered throughout our collective experience as strategists, researchers, designers, and consultants who work with organizations in transition. The reality is, all organizations are constantly in transition (h/t Heraclites). We’d love to hear from you about what you’ve learned from your experiences.

Culture change is often spurred by major “life events” in an organization.

New leadership, merger or acquisition, the launch of a risky new product or service — all of these and more qualify for big shifts in culture. And these shifts can often make or break the next stage in an organization’s growth path.

If you’re a leader in the midst of this change or are an employee or organizational member observing this transition, download our white paper:

BS LLC offers branding, strategy, and design solutions because we believe businesses operate at their highest growth potential when guided by a holistic set of values and goals. 

If you would like to learn more about how BS LLC can help you grow from the inside out, please send us a message or give us a call (513-427-5526).  Additionally, you can take an in-depth look at our services and resources.