Company Culture

The Secret to Successful Organizational Change

By Sarah AlexanderJanuary 10, 2017

For all of the time, effort, and money that go into organizational change initiatives, Towers Watson found that only 25% of transformations are successful. Part of the reason for this low success rate is that change is almost always difficult for employees to embrace.

And yet, given this critically important human and cultural component, Strategy& has found that, time and again, culture is pretty far down the list of corporate priorities in the midst of a transition, regardless of industry or transition type. Culture is often not addressed at all – trumped by discussion of communication, training, and leadership alignment, which are no doubt also important.

Culture’s Role in Change

Evidence suggests that employees are more inclined to embrace change when their organization’s culture is aligned with its mission and goals. It is useful to keep this in mind when introducing change. More specifically, there are two ways that understanding and even leveraging your company’s culture can be useful when navigating change.

First, cultural insight will provide you with awareness of the extent to which organization members will be willing to accept or even embrace change. Second, understanding your company’s culture will empower you to determine, or even predict, the root cause of any problems that might arise in the wake of a transformation.

Prosci has found that the key areas of your corporate culture to be in tune with are:

  • Ability to Influence: to what extent do your employees have an opportunity to influence decision making?
  • Comfort with Ambiguity: to what extent are employees are comfortable with uncertainty and risk taking?
  • Achievement Orientation: how assertive, goal-directed, and achievement-oriented are your employees?
  • Individualism versus Collectivism: to what extent does individual versus group loyalty exist in your everyday culture?
  • Egalitarianism: how equal are opportunities for advancement in your company?
  • Time Orientation: to what extent is your organizational mission focused on values from the past? The present? The future?
  • Space Orientation: what is the physical layout of your organization: public, private, or a mix of both? How does this align with day-to-day interactions?

How to Effectively Leverage Culture

There are several levers that your company can deploy in order to take advantage of your culture during an organizational transformation and ensure that any effects on your culture from change are positive ones.

First, conduct a culture assessment. Using interviews, surveys, or specific focus groups, ask questions that delve into your organizational purpose, philosophy, and strategic priorities. As mentioned above, you need to know your culture’s strengths and weaknesses before you can leverage any aspects of it in a transformation. Conducting an annual audit (at the minimum) will ensure a cultural familiarity that you can leverage in the face of change. Additionally, knowing the type of people at your company will help you predict where objections or negativity might arise and nip those in the bud before they even arise.

Second, set a small number of behavioral change goals to show workers what you want them to do differently. When employees are faced with too many change priorities, they aren’t sure how to proceed. This sort of uncertainty in an organization can extend to doubt that the change initiative is good for the enterprise and can keep that initiative from gaining any momentum. Strategy& has found that one of the biggest obstacles to successful change is this “change fatigue.” In their interviews of employees in companies undergoing significant change, 65% of respondents cited change fatigue and only about half felt their organization had the capabilities to deliver change. By focusing on only a few behaviors, which employees at every level have identified as the most impactful for your organization’s particular situation, you avoid this pitfall and instill confidence in your employees in the organization’s new path.

Third, be open and honest. Keep an open conversation with your workforce and take their opinions seriously. While you might be driving the change, they are the ones who will be affected most on a day-to-day basis, and you need them on your side for it to go smoothly. What isn’t right at present? Where would you like to be in a year’s time? Five years? Which processes need to change? Is everybody in their best possible role? Leverage the power of storytelling to bring employees along with the organization on its journey.

But remember, as you communicate this vision, don’t make the mistake of thinking everyone is alright with the change because they are not vocally complaining. Encourage employees to give feedback and be ready to listen.

Fourth, encourage employee pride and commitment. The odds of a successful transformation plummet when morale is bad. Finding ways to connect workers to something larger that they can believe in, including customer benefits or the satisfaction of beating a benchmark, will make them feel empowered versus forced to change. This kind of engagement will also help to avoid employees becoming frustrated and seeking employment elsewhere, which can lead to decrease in motivation and performance among your remaining employees.

Fifth, provide peer support and motivation through informal networks. Culture might start at the top, but it is reinforced at every level. Having a peer point out the benefits of change can be much more powerful than a manager and can lead to improved behaviors that continue even when nobody’s looking

Last but not least, develop a plan to manage resistance to change. According to Prosci’s extensive research in this area over the last two decades, one of the top obstacles to successful change is people’s resistance to change. Some might view this as “reactive,” but there are some significant and meaningful steps that you can take early in a project to address resistance proactively.

For example, identifying what resistance might look like and where it is likely to come from before announcing any change will enable you to develop a set of steps that answer these objections before they manifest themselves and bring down your project. Along these lines, it is also useful to think about how you will monitor net acceptance and resistance among your workforce. What triggers will you use to know that people are accepting or rejecting change? Taking a proactive approach to measurement will help you understand how you’re doing from the outset and avoid being taken by surprise.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Sarah is an elite triathlete and independent strategy consultant with an MBA from Chicago Booth. She is passionate about empowering others to achieve excellence.

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