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  • Writer's pictureTony Richards

3 Critical Mistakes When Trying To Change Culture

Culture change is hard. Modifying an entrenched organizational climate will be the toughest challenge you ever face as a leader. This is why many do not attempt it and also why many cultural change initiatives fail. As a manager of an organization, you have the authority to change policies and procedures. You have the ability to bring on people, let people go and give employees promotions. These you can exercise with simply making the decision and filling out some paperwork. Changing the culture does not happen by simply sending a memo. Culture change has to do with strategy, structure and people. As part of that three-piece recipe, you and your team must win the hearts and minds of those people, which take thought, planning and skill.

The elements I described above must be constructed as a mutually reinforcing system that has legs and staying power. Managers may introduce concepts such as Agile and Scrum, which may appear to make progress for a while, but eventually the prevailing organizational climate will overtake it and these concepts will be sucked down into the current culture like a whirlpool to become ineffective. Making organizational climate changes are large-scale projects, which require both skills and tools in order to make a critical impact and achieve a strong chance for success. Of course, there is no enough room in this short article to fully discuss this complex topic, however, I have included three critical mistakes managers make when they attempt a culture change project.

1. Fanfare Is The First Move

This mistake is way too common. Leaders of the organization put a lot of emphasis in announcing change with a lot of fanfare. There’s an employee party with t-shirts and wristbands with the next big slogan on them. Leaders launch the new initiative with much enthusiasm and energy. Meanwhile, employees are drinking the punch, listening to the band and eating the finger food. They are also thinking about how long this latest thing will last before they are asked to gather for yet another launch with new fanfare? What may be obvious to some at the top may not be obvious to the pivotal players on the front line. Too much celebration and not enough creation of a strong sense of urgency for the right reasons causes a culture shift movement to lose all its momentum before it even has a chance of taking hold and succeeding.

2. The Boondoggle Retreat

Creating an effective case for change is not easy. It takes deep strategic thinking. The reasons for change do not appear quickly; neither does the plan for change or the long-term way to implement effectively. It also must take place in this order, as the best change plan in the universe won’t have a chance if you don’t have good strategic reasons for taking it to a new destination, followed by a plan for the change and execution. In addition, the buy-in must take place from all the people at the retreat. It cannot be “just because the boss says this is what we are doing.” Going away for a couple of days for a retreat that has an agenda of the boss merely rolling out their plan with the expectation of everyone else just falling into line has very little chance of succeeding. There’s nothing wrong with the executive team going away for a fun time, this helps with camaraderie and team building, but that should be the focus of the activity. If the focus is to figure out the future cultural direction of the organization, that should be the focus. Properly conducting a strategic retreat requires a focused agenda and participation from all.

3. Employees Are Asked To Go First

This typically occurs when executives are acting more like managers rather than leaders. They use management tools from their skill set rather than the leadership ones. They try to manage the culture change initiative as they would a financial resource or a technical resource. Resources of the human kind must be led, not managed. Some of these leadership tools might be communication and storytelling. These types of tools require the leaders of the organization to go first and provide the models for front line employees to follow. When culture change initiatives are handed down as announcements rather than real-life models, not only are you ignoring the current organizational climate but you are expecting a “do as I say, not as I do” result.

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