Overcoming Obstacles to Successful Culture Change

New behaviors must become lasting habits to achieve positive, sustainable change.

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As businesses work through the complexity of return-to-office strategies and determine how to manage a forever-hybrid workforce, the need to cultivate — and preserve — effective organizational culture is on everyone’s minds. Driving intentional culture is a critical element of an adaptable organization that can respond to emerging challenges and opportunities at today’s fast pace. As the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty and complexity that have accompanied it have clearly demonstrated, organizations need cultures that encourage flexibility, adaptability, and speed.

But despite shared recognition of the importance and role of culture, there is very little consensus on how to effectively change it. Typical approaches to culture change — relying on leaders to define the culture and cascade it throughout the organization, or fully outsourcing the responsibility of shaping and building culture to an HR group — rarely produce real results. These attempts often face major hurdles in the typical management-centric organization, which leans toward stability and reliability rather than change and agility, and whose leaders may view change as a threat.

Our observations of successful cultural change efforts suggest that organizations should take an approach that starts with new actions, not with leaders identifying or articulating a desired culture. Rather than merely stating a desire for a culture with greater collaboration, for example, you would encourage collaboration through actions: seeking input from others, including junior or new colleagues on the team; including end users in the solution design process from the outset rather than waiting until a new product is ready to beta test; or more actively using internal communication tools to share ideas and progress updates in real time.

These new actions, when consistent with the business strategy, start to generate tangible results, which, when celebrated early and often across an entire organization, can inspire more new actions. Over time, this cycle of new behaviors generates new, lasting habits that snowball across the organization. Once behaviors become habits, these new ways of working become “how we do it here” — rather than isolated, individual, or fleeting instances.

Our research on and observations of organizational efforts to define or evolve culture have revealed common pitfalls and some proven strategies for producing a meaningful impact on culture. Below are three of the most widespread dangers to culture change, along with strategies for addressing them.

1. Not connecting culture to business outcomes.

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