Want to Change Your Culture? Follow These Steps


If you asked me in February what it takes to change culture, I would have cautioned most culture change is slow–just think of how company culture evolves when someone new joins the organization or someone departs. I would have told you that when seeking to change or redirect culture, remember that the bigger the ship (organization and/or team), the harder it is to turn.

As I write this article, COVID-19 is changing many workplace norms. It is wreaking havoc on the physical and mental health of people. It’s impact on the world’s economies are staggering. Because of it, my perspective has changed.

Culture change can be fast, more like a revolutionary than evolutionary type of shift, which is what we are used to seeing. For culture change to be revolutionary (dramatic and complete), it requires a compelling reason for the change. Something like, “our survival depends on it.”

Paradoxically, that necessity is part of the problem when it comes to change management in organizations. Leaders don’t want to tell their stakeholders (especially employees, clients and suppliers) that this organization won’t exist in the future if change doesn’t happen now.

Why People Don’t Tie Change to Survival

If people admit that change is necessary for survival, they fear they will hasten their demise. No one wants to be on a sinking ship and those escaping will erode the ship’s ability to save itself. Imagine saying, “We aren’t sure when, but we know this company won’t exist in the future if we don’t make this change now.” Will people panic or band together?

I would like to think that the latter is possible if you:

  • Share the compelling reason change is needed.
  • Share a compelling, or highly desirable, future.

If your reasons for culture change are to make more profit, be Number 1 or beat your competitor, these aren’t nearly compelling enough to inspire speedy change to a culture.

Some people may get excited by those reasons, particularly if they have skin in the game through profit sharing or ownership or are simply motivated by winning, but they won’t work for most people.

To initiate and accomplish real culture change, here is my improved list of steps (informed by the COVID-19 crisis) and focusing on smaller businesses and teams.

Step 1

Step 1 in creating culture change is having a compelling reason. Here is where you must start and stay until you have this aspect clearly understood and articulated. The one belief that will ensure your culture change is dead in the water goes something like, “What we have done for the last 20 years [fill in your own number] has worked, so why would we change?” The problem with this belief is that the average lifespan of organizations has shortened from 60 years in 1950 to 12 years in 2017 (according to research by Credit Suisse), so what has been working is definitely not a guarantee it will continue to work. Based on this research, organizations should develop a compelling reason for change at least once every seven to nine years if they want to be around in the 10th, which brings me to how to create a compelling reason. The reason has two parts:

  • The desirable future you envision providing the change occurs.
  • The future you expect to meet if the change isn’t met.

Step 1 is the responsibility of the organization’s visionaries, although they may consult stakeholders to gather insights and participate in “future-storming” (brainstorming what is possible for the future).

Step 2

Step 2 is when visionaries gather those who can effect change throughout the organization and have them comprehend the two future states (desired state if change occurs and likely state if change doesn’t). This is where visionaries get their people to buy into the desired future state. I encourage obtaining buy in early because those building the plan are more likely to be willing to endure the challenges required to make the change. Here’s where we go slow so we can go fast in the future.

Step 3

Once everyone sees the desired future, Step 3 is to identify where we are today. You can only build a plan to get you to your desired destination by knowing the reality of where you are starting. There are many tools and tactics organizations use to do this, but as an HR practitioner I encourage you to identify the culture you currently inhabit because your culture is going to set the parameters for your change plan.

Step 4

Step 4 requires collaboration with all stakeholders on how to get from the current reality to the compelling future state. In this planning stage, people are brought together to determine how best to get where you want to go. But whereas it is traditional to develop a fully formed plan before implementation, smaller organizations may act on a first step everyone can agree on (or an action that will do minimal harm) to see how far it gets. Including everyone is valuable because you obtain a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of your organization. Through this process, you will work through the systems that may need to change, including rewards and recognition, budgets, workflows, decision making, goal setting and accountability. When developing strategies and plans for change, there may not be any sacred cows, but if there are things you don’t want to change, make sure you clearly identify those early on in Step 4. To avoid Step 4 becoming a never-ending cycle, consider defining a timeline, parameters (what you won’t mess with and what is fair game as well as budgets, etc.) and decision-making authority on the plan and action steps.

Step 5

While Step 5 comes after Step 4, it also continues alongside Step 4 (planning) and Step 6 (feedback). It is basically acting on the plan through mobilization of efforts, activities and resources. During Step 5, leaders must be cheerleaders and coaches, out front and in behind, modelling the way forward and recognizing wins, appreciating efforts and encouraging people to keep going when they fall back into old habits. If you are in a large organization, before beginning this step, the entire organization must be caught up on Steps 1-4. Alternatively, consider small scale rollouts of change to prove the changes work. For small organizations, Step 5 is the natural progression from the planning process and is likely happening anyway.

Step 6

Step 6 is where you evaluate how well you are progressing. It becomes part of a loop with Steps 4 and 5, enabling organizations to adjust course as necessary. In this evaluation step, you should conduct regular check ins on:

    1. Progress.
    2. Accomplishments and successes.
    3. Unanticipated obstacles.

Include your team in this process and work through Steps 4 and 5 by agreeing on course corrections and taking appropriate actions. This loop also offers an opportunity to decommission the “old way of doing things” and celebrate your progress.

In Closing

While there are clear steps involved in changing culture, the specific change plan depends entirely on your organization’s:

  • Desired future state.
  • Current reality (including current culture).

Although there may be six general steps to follow, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The foundation of these steps is excellent communication.

As we are seeing with how quickly change is happening during COVID-19, a highly desirable future state juxtaposed with a terrifying alternative can unite people in building solutions in quick iterations as long as we have well-defined parameters, excellent communication and valid, timely feedback.



Shawnee is a consultant, speaker, blogger, trainer, and HR expert with seasoned leadership experience. Along with a Commerce degree from UBC, Shawnee has a lengthy career leading and managing human resources in a broad range of industries and company types.

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