It is both exhilarating and frustrating (and slightly embarrassing) when long-held beliefs are negated by new research.

Recently, a new study by our research team here at i4cp shattered beliefs I have held for decades. And it has still taken me a while to admit this, even to myself.

For as long as I can remember, I have believed that changing corporate culture is extremely difficult, if not impossible. And, even if culture could be changed, I always thought it would take at least eight-to-10 years to see the results.

However, after analyzing the data from the over 7,500 respondents to i4cp’s study, Culture Renovation: A Blueprint for Action, I had an epiphany.

First, a little background:

My interest in organizational culture began many years ago in grad school. I took a few courses on how work was performed in different countries’ cultures (for example, worker-managed organizations in Yugoslavia, kibbutzes in Israel, state-run organizations in China and the Soviet Union, efficiency-rule driven organizations in Japan, etc.). Throughout school I was also heavily influenced by B.F. Skinner’s work on behavior modification and Kurt Lewin’s change theories.

As a result, I became convinced that culture was far too complex and mystifying to sway in any meaningful way.

The complexity starts with the ability (or better said, the inability) to define culture. It is not a plaque on the wall—it is the unseen way work gets done. These unwritten rules create an environment in which certain work behaviors are condoned, rewarded, encouraged or penalized. These work behaviors result in a culture that is “felt” by people in that environment. 

Modern organizations are complex ecosystems where multiple environments exist which, in turn, create multiple cultures. For example, the culture at the top of the organization is often very different from the culture that exists at the bottom.

And there are usually sub-groups within an organization’s ecosystem. I would guess that in most businesses there are probably hundreds of these sub-cultures at work. In large organizations, there could be hundreds of these sub-cultures operating side-by-side. For example, the culture in the engineering department is typically very different than the culture in sales or the HR department—they each have their own language and ways of interacting. 

Geography matters, too. The culture in the office in Boston is often very different from the culture in San Francisco or Hong Kong. Based on this, I think you might understand my skepticism around any attempt to change culture.

However, i4cp’s Culture Renovation study found that 350 participants indicated that their organizations had been successful with their culture change initiatives. We explored several of them in depth.

Analyzing the information provided by those successful organizations revealed a distinct pattern of activities that were not only highly correlated with successful culture change, but also with better market performance and an overall healthy culture. From these correlations, our research team created a blueprint for culture change that grouped 18 distinct activities into three phases: Plan, build, and maintain. We complemented the research findings with several cases studies of organizations that have successfully (and relatively quickly) effected change to their cultures.

As I reflected on the data and the study, there are four consistent elements for success that are responsible for changing my previous beliefs about culture change initiatives:

  1. Successful organizations honored the past while building a culture that would ensure future success. They did not try to change the numerous sub-cultures, but focused on building an overall organizational culture that stresses values, passions, behaviors, or purpose that the sub-cultures could align to. And the cultures we studied were often quite different, stressing elements such as collaboration, agility, innovation, inclusion, growth-mindset, empathy, or customer-centricity. But whether you are located in Hong Kong or Boston, or work in the HR department or sales, all employees can relate to these traits and execute the strategy in accordance with them.
  2. These organizations all invested in training programs for leaders at all levels in order to ensure that behaviors are aligned to the desired culture. From the executive team down to the first-line supervisor, successful organizations ensured that everyone knew what was expected of them. And, maybe most importantly, these organizations all reported that the CEOs modeled the desired behaviors.
  3. They all believed in the philosophy of “what gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded gets repeated.” I’m famous at i4cp for repeating this phrase, but it always rings true with high-performance organizations. Companies that were successful at changing their cultures clearly defined the measures for success upfront during the planning phase. They also often changed their compensation and bonus structures, as well as their performance management systems, succession processes and other talent initiatives to align to the desired culture. They also promoted people who exhibited the desired behaviors, and told stories about employees who demonstrated the spirit of the new culture. Lastly, they had a process to call out those who were not living up to the expected behavior, or who were clearly naysayers to the culture change initiative.
  4. Last, but probably the most impressive, is that the CEOs in these successful organizations were almost always the “culture champion.” They were passionate about the change to the point of being doggedly obsessive. They over-communicated about the culture change, and typically took any opportunity to reinforce the new culture at all levels in the organization. Some even wrote books about it.

The data we uncovered in Culture Renovation, along with the case studies, changed my beliefs about an organization’s ability to successfully change culture, and the time it takes to make that change happen. 

I guess you can still teach an old dog new tricks.