Want to change culture? Then don’t think “managing” change, think about nurturing it instead

Change management and cultural change

I caught up recently with a former client I hadn’t seen in a while. I told him about some of the work we’d been doing over the past few years, using language as a vehicle for cultural change.

“Oh, so you’re doing change management, then?” he asked.

No, I thought, no we’re not.

Change management is super-charged project management

In my experience, the discipline of change management is about delivering projects. Large-scale projects, admittedly – but projects, nonetheless. And these projects are usually about implementing new processes or systems.

Great change management is a completely expert, spreadsheet-tastic implementation of things like new IT systems – or overhauls of entire operations processes.

There’s a human element to this, of course. Change management did, after all, emerge as a discipline because senior leaders in the late 80s and early 90s realised that just because they told teams to do something didn’t necessarily mean that something would happen.

So a good change manager works in partnership with teams affected by change, making sure hurdles are overcome and kinks are ironed out. 

But you can’t “manage” cultural change

However, if you apply change management approaches and techniques to trying to achieve cultural change, you will almost certainly fail. 

The reason is simply because change management is about making projects with a start and a finish happen. It’s about “delivery”. A project – however complex – done and dusted.

Cultural change, on the other hand, is about getting people to re-evaluate the organisation they work for, think differently about their role within in it – and work differently to achieve its goals. And of course, you want these changes to be permanent and sustainable.

If you want to change workplace culture, don’t start with a to-do list

If you’re rolling out a new IT system, it would be reasonable to start the process with a top-level “to-do” list. With this approach, people are just one of the moving parts and might account for a handful of rows on a spreadsheet. 

But if you want to change workplace culture, you can’t take the same approach – setting out all the major milestones and simply seeing people as facilitators of that change. In cultural change, people are the object, subject and the vectors of change, all rolled into one.

So achieving sustainable cultural change has to start instead with talking to, and listening to people. What is their personal experience of the workplace? Would they change anything? Is there a gap between what senior leaders think the culture is, and the culture as individuals experience it? How does the culture affect their ability to work? Is there anything that’s getting in the way of them being able to do a great job?

It’s only once you have a firm idea of how people are experiencing work that you’re able to start planning.

In change management, people are a way to achieve objectives. In culture change, people arethe objective. 

Think about nurturing change, not “delivering” it

In change management, change achieved means all boxes ticked… and then you move onto the next big thing. But when you’re changing culture, you’re never, ever going to tick all the boxes.

It’s because you can’t “deliver” culture. Instead, you have to prioritise it and nurture it in whichever ways are right for your organisation, your business goals and your brand. It’s an ongoing process that should pervade every area of business activity, every area of your business’s physical space, every word written and every idea shared.

It’s an ongoing process of identifying areas and touchpoints that inform culture and align them all behind a shared purpose. And it’s about finding the narratives and language that allow people to transmit the new culture. Culture needs to be viral. A new IT system, however complex, needs to work.

One of the reasons changing workplace culture is seen as so difficult to achieve?

I personally feel that a big part of the reason why achieving cultural shift is seen as so difficult is because, very often, change management methodology is used to achieve it.

So our advice – stop thinking of cultural change as a project. Start, instead, by thinking of culture as a part of business as usual that you need to introduce, embed and nurture.

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