When we talk about culture, it’s often too easy to describe how an organisation or another individual hasn’t measured up. Of course, accountability matters, and anger – often justifiable anger – can spark vital conversations. But it’s not nearly enough to achieve anything worthwhile. To drive genuine change across an entire organisation takes much more courage.
It pairs personal and collective accountability, with open (often uncomfortable) conversations and actions (often difficult ones), all supported by a deep understanding of how a whole system works.
That’s why I often find myself sighing and skimming past the outrage, and longing to read more articles thoughtfully deconstructing how change really happens – not just the barrage of punches thrown at a bag. I’d like us to look a little harder not at ‘what’s wrong with them’, but more at ‘what’s wrong with us and what we’re going to do about it together’.
That is where the hard work comes into play. When you see genuine change happening – whether it be small or at scale – you see open-minded people collectively digging in and playing their personal role. They don’t commentate or defend. They work. And it’s inspiring. I’d love to see that work being understood and given credit.
What does it take to create meaningful change? Plenty of deep thinking, reflection, hard thoughtful work, solid plans, and the resilience and persistence to play a short game, a medium game, and a long game all at the same time.
Here’s five places to start:
1. Understand: Making a safe space for the conversation
Change, like culture, is not a solo job. Right from step one, there needs to be plenty of space for the conversation. And it needs to be a space where everyone is confident, where they trust that their opinions and questions are as valid as the next person’s.
To make change, you have to listen to where you’re at right now – from many perspectives. I have a few favourite sayings – one of them is, “If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you should talk to more people.” Our viewpoints are all influenced by our own unique experiences and hardwiring. Making a safe space for people to share theirs is the only way to piece together a richer, more nuanced understanding of a problem.
In our experience, some people rush the space. They want to tell their version – fast! Sometimes they’re just eager to share, but other times they’re intent on centring the ‘right’ perspective – that is, their perspective. However, other experiences and ideas are not only just as valid, but won’t go away simply because someone talks louder.
There’s another saying I like: “the truth is patient.” It isn’t going anywhere. It’s a matter of whether you want to face the truth and address it, or whether you’re ok with it sneaking up on you once it’s even harder to do something about it.
You won’t make change until you can hear the truth without fear.
2. Understand the whole system
When you have all the perspectives and experiences of a culture, you can see where it’s at.
I’ve never seen a culture that is all bad, or one that is all good. By nature of being made of people – irrational, voluntary, changing, and free people – it will be a broad spectrum of things, often all at the same time.
Understanding the complex system that is culture is about understanding, and really looking hard at all the different factors that comprise culture. You’re looking for:
- the purpose – the work you’re doing together and for who
- the architecture – process, practices, rules and governance
- the people – views, experiences, perspectives and behaviours
- data – the facts and figures that show you how culture is moving
When you see the whole system, you can start to identify what’s working (there’s always good you to protect and value), what’s not (there’s always space to get better), what’s irrelevant (there’s always something unnecessary that people are holding on to), and where everyone wants to be (an ambition to create a space where everyone can thrive and good things happen).
3. Accept you’re all part of it
Often, we like to discuss culture in terms of heroes and villains. The truth is more complex. In most organisational cultures, there are few heroes and even fewer villains. It is more a group of people doing the best they can, where they are, with what they’ve got.
And, in almost every case, we’re all a part of it. We’re all playing a role – passively or actively, boldly or with trepidation, with power or without.
The truth about organisational culture change is that it starts when everyone lays down swords, understanding that they’re part of the problem and the solution.
This requires deep reflection and genuine openness. It’s not just about ‘them’, but also ‘us’ and ‘me’. Change happens when we stop throwing stones at the ‘others’ and identify our role roles..
4. Make a plan
Too often, discussions stop at, “I have described the problem. It is bad.”
Gradually the energy starts to wane and we hear things like “I’m so tired of talking about that.” After only a few weeks or even days, posts stop and articles slip off the front page. But did anything truly change?
Behind the scenes, when real change happens, it’s much more than a description of the problem. It’s a detailed, thoughtful, compromised plan. Line by line considered and reviewed, prioritised and planned. Small things and big things.
And then the real work kicks in.
5. Do things that matter
Real cultural change is a short game, a medium game and a long game all played concurrently.
That’s why real change takes extraordinary leadership, along with extraordinary followership and commitment from everyone.
Once you have an open conversation, you can dig deeper into the whole system and how it determines your broader culture. Then, you own your collective role in creating it and building it better, making a plan of what needs to happen.
These are steps to putting purpose right back front and centre. And it’s immediate action that can channel frustration and anger into something beneficial.
Next is the even harder work on the architecture – the processes, practices, the ways ‘things are done around here’ – and measurement, so you know where you’re up to. And then there’s the even harder work of taking everyone with you. Listening more. Putting feedback loops in place. Broadening the table and allowing different views and perspectives to meet. Opening up a closed system to continuous improvement from all angles, without creating unstructured chaos.
None of that is easy, but the hardest piece is the last piece: the open-mindedness, courage and resilience of everyone involved. It’s constantly running a gauntlet between pride in who we are, and the conviction that we can be better.
This is a lot of work, a lot of nuance, without clear tropes or character archetypes. Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes easier to stop at the outrage: “We have described the problem. It is bad.”
But, to me, the really interesting and inspiring story of organisational culture change is more exciting than a dramatic headline. It’s in the hard work, open mindedness and compromise that happens as people really dig in to do their part. It’s in the curiosity and determination needed to create places where people can thrive and contribute in a great way.
It might not make for the most sensational news cycle, but the real story of change is calm, considered, inclusive, and often against difficult odds, determinedly optimistic.