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How To Change Organisational Culture In 3 Easy Steps

OK, I’m sorry, you can’t. If it was that easy, we wouldn’t be struggling so much with transforming organisations. Now, I assume that if you read this post, you probably are interested in changing the course of your organisation, division, team or whatever structure you’re part of. If so, read on about my ideas on how to approach this complex problem.

Why Would We Like To Change The Culture?

Imagine Chris. Chris is not living a healthy life. He smokes, drinks 3-4 beers each evening in front of the sports channel. He is a white-collar worker, and commutes to the office by car. He likes it that way and thinks that he doesn’t need a change.

By accident, our Chris has met a sports coach, Anna, who told him, that if he’s going to live his life like that any longer, he will soon get himself into health troubles. Anna started to persuade Chris to exercise, to change his evening habits, to use a bicycle to commute to work. And Chris eventually started to do those things. The coach was happy and fulfilled. There was no more work for her to do. So she left.

Do you know what happened next? Yes. The same thing that happened the last time your organisation (or your friend’s organisation) tried to transform into an agile one. Agile coaches came in, people were sent to training courses, Scrum Masters were selected and… Done.

What we really should be after is something deeper than just some practices. Changing the mindset of Chris would result in a much more sticky lifestyle change. The same applies for organisations.

For me, organisational culture is like a shared mindset – the product of the mindsets of people working in the organisation. Changing it creates a permanent change in behaviours.

This point of view is reinforced by Donella Meadows’ 12 Leverage Points to intervene in a system. According to her, a change in culture is the second most powerful way to change the system. It seems, that culture really eats everything for breakfast. Taming culture change would be a great help for leaders who want their organisations to be at the top of the market. Fortunately, I have a guide for just that.

The Guide

Changing the culture directly is very hard, if not impossible. You can’t train or order your people to be different. So how can you attack the problem? Let’s see how the mentioned list constructed by Donella can help us here. I’ve picked up the 3 out of 12 points that in my opinion are most relevant and helpful.

Define The Goal

You should start with defining the goal – the vision (who do we want to be?), mission (what do we want to achieve?), purpose (why are we doing all of this?) of a team, organisation or department. And, very importantly, what values we should corporately live by (how are we going to do all of this?). According to Donella, this is the third most powerful way to intervene in the system.

Defining the goal is a first step to subordinate every decision, process and change to be aligned with it. Without a clear direction, people will be confused and the results may be very random.

Then you need to communicate it, again and again and again. And again. Talk to people, discuss, make sure they understand. And not only your peers, but everyone. Go and talk to them. Use the language of your values and mention mission in every possible situation. Act as a role model of your future culture – walk the talk! Otherwise there is a danger people will not believe you.

If possible, try to measure the change in the culture. Not measuring is like walking in dark room full of traps (including lego blocks on the floor!). Don’t be fooled by your feeling that you can see what’s going on without metrics. Your feeling is unreliable because of the numerous biases you’re exposed to, with confirmation bias on top of all of them. With each thoughtful metric you get more insight into what’s really happening.

Change The Rules

Next, change the rules of your system (the 5th leverage point). Change the way you hire (most importantly!), promote, appraise and fire people. In general, align HR with your vision. Don’t leave HR department alone with this challenge, work collaboratively with them. Make sure they share the same goal.

Hiring is the most crucial one as, once aligned with new direction, it will stop flooding your veins with people with incompatible DNA. People with the right attitude will help you with your journey. Not changing it will only extend your struggles, or even will make them infinite, as there will be always someone new to transform (or fire).

At Ocado Technology we recently changed the way we promote our engineers. The change was profound and it deserves a separate article. The main idea was to focus the promotion decision on our values, exemplified by behaviours. To come up with all of this wasn’t easy, but I believe was necessary and will speed up our change dramatically.

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to lose people, who don’t match and there’s no hope that they will align soon. Allow them to fly the nest and wish them luck. Some people just don’t fit your new culture. Letting them stay will send the message to your troops that it’s acceptable to stick to the old way of doing business. It shouldn’t be.

Positive Feedback Loops

Finally, try to create a positive feedback loop that will reinforce the change (7th on the list). How? Communicate success stories: how the new culture and new behaviours led your organisation to success. Start with whatever you have. Gather more examples and then use them. This will be a proof for sceptics, people who need to see before they believe. And this will help you to fight even more, as the undertaking will be long and hard, and you too will need some reinforcing examples of the whole endeavour.


I hope that those three guiding focus points will help anyone, who is willing to impact the organisation in more lasting way. Start with defining the goal of the system, then align rules (especially HR policies) and reinforce all of that with success stories. Most of those things are currently being implemented in our organisation. I will probably share some details once we experience deeper changes in our culture.

Cultural change is hard. Be prepared for a long and exhausting journey. But the outcome should be much more sticky and permanent than, for instance, the outcome delivered by external consultants hired just to make your organisation agile. Yes, you may need external help, but it is for you to do the job at the end of the day.

Photo credits: rolffimages / 123RF

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