How to change the culture of your organization

May 31, 2012

Years ago, we used to believe that changing a large organization required nothing more than an act of communication. Of course crafting that communication was never easy but we used to believe in the power of hierarchy – if the person at the top issued the right communication then the organization would fall in line. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this was ever true, but regardless, it isn’t true today.

Changing a large organization today requires a more nuanced understanding of how change actually spreads through an organization. Through my work and my personal experience, I’ve started to form a point of view about this. I continue to look for opportunities to test these ideas – in my actual work and through conversation with others. I very much welcome your input.

I believe that cultures are transformed in five stages. The change might not actually unfold in a neat linear fashion – human behavior is usually quite a bit messier than that. Still, I think this is a helpful way for leaders to think about what they need to do to create enduring change at scale.

Stage 1: One or more individuals – usually the early adopters – hold a new belief. Imagine you want to get people to recycle. What would they need to believe in order to make an effort to recycle? They would probably need to believe that the planet is worth sustaining, that recycling could help, and that their effort will make a difference. In order to create this new belief you would need to provide information that is relevant and compelling to the people you want to change, and help them process and understand it.

Stage 2: People act on the new belief. Clearly belief is not enough. If people don’t act on their new belief, change will not happen. This requires agency – people must have the ability to act, and perceive themselves as having this ability. For example, people would need to know how to recycle – which items to put in which bins on which days. And, of course, they would need the recycling bins. Without the knowledge of how to recycle and the tools for doing so, the change will not happen.

In a business context, agency has much to do with autonomy and tools. Do your people believe they have the right to act? What has happened in the past when people used their judgment? Were they rewarded? Tolerated? Punished? Do people in your organization have the tools they need to act?

Stage 3: People repeat the actions and form habits. It isn’t enough for people to act once or twice. You need behavior to consistently reflect the new culture you’re trying to create. People will often be open to trying a new behavior once. But they are also subject to inertia – they fall into habits. If there is friction that gets in their way, new behaviors will not stick.

As a leader, you can help create change by removing unnecessary friction. Let’s consider our recycling example. A person can believe recycling is important. They can act on that belief by throwing a can into the recycling bin. But if they have to walk too far to the recycling bin or if the bins are full because the town doesn’t empty them often enough, people might simply decide that it’s too hard and go back to their old ways.

There are many sources of friction in a corporate environment. Very often process gets in the way – it’s just too hard for people to do what you want them to do and they give up. Sometimes the rewards aren’t there and people decide it isn’t worth it.

This is usually the point at which most change efforts fall apart. It is also a very critical point in the change process because when new behaviors become habits in a few individuals, others start to take notice. It is at this point that the change can evolve from an individual to a social phenomenon.

Stage 4: Other people emulate the early adopters. Now you have the seeds of a movement. In order for change to reach this stage, you must enable recognition and sharing. First, the people engaging in the new habit must be visible. If other people don’t see them then the new behavior cannot spread socially. Second, the early adopters must be respected. Nobody wants to emulate people who are perceived as lacking in status or power. If the early recyclers are not perceived favorably as people, then recycling will always remain a fringe behavior.

What this means for you in a business context is that you must reach out to the right people in the early stages of your change effort. This doesn’t necessarily mean people with formal authority or seniority. You should also consider people who are perceived as up-and-comers or who are simply popular. Once you’ve gotten those people on board, you should make sure they are visible to the organization and rewarded for their efforts.

At this stage you are close to achieving genuine impact but you’re not quite there yet. You are still only affecting a relatively small group of people. Also, emulation is a weak motivation. People who are emulating others are acting out of external motivation – they have not yet fully internalized the new belief and behavior so they can easily slip back into their old habits.

Stage 5: The new habit reaches critical mass. It becomes the new way of doing things – it is now an organizational habit and you have achieved your ambition. To get to this point, the early adopters and those who emulate them must demonstrate impact. Simply put, the new behavior must work better than the behavior it was intended to replace. The early adopters might be fueled by a passionately-held belief, but most people will only adopt new behaviors if they work. If recycling is not perceived as actually leading to a healthier planet, many people will simply not do it.

In your organization, you will likely find that success begets success. When something works – when it produces results that are meaningful and important to people – it will spread and stick.

Moving a change effort through all of these stages requires thoughtful planning. As a leader you should design the very first steps of your change program with an eye towards the very last steps. If you wait until you have successfully created belief to start thinking about how to enable action, you might find that the new believers quickly become cynics. If you don’t target the right early adopters from day one, you may end up with some very passionate people who have all of the right habits but not enough influence to help you spread them throughout the organization. However, with the right attention to the human dynamic and how it could unfold in your organization, you can successfully create the conditions for meaningful change to stick and scale in your organization.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ben February 22, 2013 at 9:18 AM

I would have to agree with these steps you have unfolded here. This seems to resemble the early life of a new product, moving from innovators, to early adopters, through the early majority and late majority before reaching the laggards. This spells it out in a refreshing way.

Moving from step one to step two is a HUGE step. I think this is where the culture influences whether or not people feel a sense of agency and an ability to act on their beliefs.


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