Five Critical Success Factors for Culture Transformation

My work with culture change clients is some of the most gratifying of my career. Guiding committed senior leaders to define their desired culture and to rally their staff to embrace desired values and behaviors is marvelous to observe. If done properly, their culture refinement efforts generate higher performance . . . increase genuine consideration of bosses, peers, customers, and stakeholders . . . and create a values-aligned work environment where players are  trusted, honored, and respected.

In our meta-analysis of culture research and in reviewing our work with culture change clients, my co-author colleagues (of Ken Blanchard‘s award-winning, proven culture change process) and I have identified five factors that were present in every single successful culture transformation we’ve guided. These are also posted in the culture change section of Blanchard’s web site.

Organizations that successfully create high performing, values-aligned cultures share these five critical success factors:

  1. The senior leadership team must demonstrate commitment to the long-term process. The culture change process must be embraced and championed by the entire senior leadership team. They must lead this effort with “one heart, one mind, and one voice.” Senior leaders cannot delegate the responsibility for culture creation, maintenance, or refinement any more than they can delegate the responsibility to breathe! They will be held to high standards as desired values are defined (in behavioral terms) and communicated. Cultural transformation is an ongoing project that will never go away.
  2. Values must be defined in behavioral terms. This is the only approach that makes your desired behaviors observable, tangible, and measurable. Ultimately, you don’t care about someone’s beliefs or attitude – you care that they demonstrate desired valued behaviors with every boss, peer, customer, and stakeholder, every day, in every interaction.
  3. Accountability for delivering promised performance and demonstrating valued behaviors is paramount. Consequences must be swift and consistent. Positive consequences for meeting performance and values expectations must be described and demonstrated. Praise and encourage the performance and values demonstration you want! Negative consequences must be applied when performance is below standards or valued behaviors are not demonstrated. You must not tolerate undesirable behavior from anyone at any level.
  4. It is vital that all staff are involved in and buy into the culture transformation at every phase. This process is not about “managing by announcements,” where leaders tell everyone what the new expectations are but don’t invite thoughts or hold people—including themselves—consistently accountable. For all staff to embrace the desired culture, they must be included in the clarification process. They must help define and commit to what the new culture will demand of them (and their bosses and peers).
  5. One step at a time. Find a manageable scope for the change initiative. Don’t try to change the entire organization at once; move at a pace that the organization can tolerate. Start with a distinct part of the organization—a department, division, plant, or regional office—to learn how the process flows. Then select another distinct part of the organization and begin the change process there, modifying and refining the roll out based on what you learned with the first group. Continue until you’ve “digested the entire elephant.”

If you skip any of our process phases or key activities or do not have these critical success factors in place, you will not gain traction on your desired culture. If you’d like to see a higher performance, values-aligned culture in your organization, let us know – we’d love to help guide you.

What success factors would you add? Contribute your thoughts in the comments section below.


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  • Nice list.

    I’d say 5) requires in inclusion of 6) Don’t go too slow. If you take too long to transform culture in one part of the org, organisational cognitive dissonance will kill the whole programme, and maybe the org, too.

    • Thanks for your suggestion, Bob. I totally agree – the best pace for culture transformation is the fastest pace the organization can tolerate!

      Once valued behaviors are defined and published, a promise is made. Leaders must deliver on that promise by modeling valued behaviors, measuring valued behaviors, and holding all staff accountable for valued behaviors within 5-6 months.

      Cheers!

      C.

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