Cultural Change

Cultural change in theory is doomed to fail

In 2018, I found out that most of what I was taught in university about changing the culture of a company was gibberish. Not everything was useless of course. I was taught that a company culture cannot be changed by putting up new values formulated by the CEO on the wall – which absolutely goes hand in hand with my experience so far. But, I left university with the belief, that the process of changing a company´s culture should look like this:

Step 1: Make your company´s values a participative project

Put together a team and organise a workshop with people across the company to analyse your current company culture. Develop several theses about the change that is needed and desired. Let everyone in the company evaluate those propositions and formulate a handful of values based on the received feedback.

I feel like this part works well in most companies – even though there are still some organisations where the CEO sits down with his top management and comes up with the “New Company Values”. I observed that people tend to formulate very generic values, so that everyone in the company identifies with them. Basically, the end result can often fit any company, which is actually counterproductive in terms of identity.

Step 2: Communicate your company´s new values

Once the values are formulated, they need to be communicated. There are numerous ways this can be done: making a short video to introduce them, traveling to every location and presenting them in the form of a roadshow, writing manuals, putting up posters, handing out t-shirts, printing postcards…

From my experience, this step is not helpful ¬– even if you manage to create a momentum after defining and communicating the new values and everyone is open to change. The reason is simple: Would you ever start moving just because I told you that sitting around all day is unhealthy? Would you ever get up at 5 am and go to the gym just because someone tells you it makes you feel better? It is incredibly hard to change a habit solely based on the information that it is not ideal.

Step 3: Implement your company´s new values

Frankly, we never really learned any details about how this is supposed to work exactly. I´ve seen many companies organise mandatory workshop sessions. Every team and employee defines what the new values actually mean for them and how they can implement them in everyday work life.

Some organisations work with peer-to-peer groups that regularly reflect on their own behaviour and the change they´re trying to foster in order to keep the momentum up.

And then came reality...

So, this is the way I tried to foster change in the past, and I have to admit: it never really seemed to work. Some people changed temporarily, but no matter how much effort and time we invested, nobody really moved in the long run. It was not until I understood that behavioural change cannot be fostered by explanation and logic that I started to look for a new way.

A change in behaviour never starts in the mind. I dare say it doesn´t even start with an insight or realisation. It starts with an experience. So, what would a process look like that does not address change in the head but provides an experience strong enough to initiate a new way of thinking and working?

Step 1: Together, think about what your company culture should feel like

Are you upset about a colleague who just never delivers on his/her promises? Who does not answer emails or pick up the phone? Who never seems to think even the slightest bit further than asked for? Who is never on time? In this case, you want your company´s culture to place more value on reliability and availability, on acting proactively and on aspiring towards punctuality.

Does your boss drive you crazy by always jumping in at the last minute to change everything you already agreed with the client? Or are you given no space to turn your great ideas into reality? Or does your boss never seem to be prepared for any meeting? In this case, you want your company´s culture to incorporate more trust, encourage creative ideas and empower self-organisation skills.

Go for lunch with some cultural lighthouses in your company and find out what they think and desire. Get a feeling for the change that is needed.

Step 2: Provide a space where people can experience this new culture

Bring together a team of people consisting of some who already meet your aspired company culture and some who do not yet do so. Find a topic that concerns all of them – for example, “Workshop moderation”, “Work-Life Balance” or “Sustainability”.

Now comes the hard part: establish a certain way of doing things. Just like in Design Thinking, where everyone focuses on a process while the true magic happens through the mindset. Just like at Alcoholics Anonymous where everyone focuses on their addiction while the true magic happens because of the community and each individual’s sense of belonging. Just like meditation where you are supposed to focus on breathing because the imperative “stop thinking” will just lead to more thoughts.

What rituals could be installed to make people be on time? Maybe everyone gets the chance to moderate their own warm-up at the beginning of one session.

How can you foster concentration? Maybe by asking everyone to leave their phones at the door.

How can you encourage wild ideas? Maybe by doing a reverse brainstorming session.

How can you create an atmosphere where everyone trusts one-another? Maybe by doing a one-way check-out at the end of every meeting.

Step 3: Make everyone who experienced the new way of working reflect on the change

At the end of every session (yes, it needs more than one sustainability workshop to make people a fan of your new way of working), take the time to reflect thoroughly on why these meetings are great. Draw a connection to the elements you came up with in Step 1.

Step 4: Step back and help the now experienced people take the lead

Once people start applying the new rituals and behaviours, encourage them to also do it outside the safe workshop space. I will never forget that day when one participant in my “Methods and Tools Facilitation” series FINALLY interrupted my moderation and said, “Well, I prepared something”. The methods have always just been the content with which to fill the space. The true magic – self-organisation, trial-and-error thinking etc. – was supposed to happen by experiencing a new way of working together. And it did. This particular participant wanted to try something that he prepared proactively: self-organisation, check. Trial-and-error thinking, check.

Set up a plan with your participants to carry on these rituals and experiences. Step back into a coaching role and be available for questions and regular sessions to reflect the change that is happening.

So, if you´re trying to change your corporate culture, look for experience instead of a phrase. Go on a journey with your peers instead of informing them about the new values. Create a space instead of hanging up a poster.

_Anika Jessen, Manager Corporate Strategy and Communications at MetaDesign Berlin