Change is hard. There is no way to get around that fact. The behaviors we do today have been built over our entire lifetimes of experience. To expect yourself or someone else to immediately change a big part of who they are is a pipe dream.
Yet change is possible. I’ve seen people be able to rise above crippling addictions and be free of those chains. I’ve seen people who were incessant jerks turn around and become kind and warm towards those around them.
I often think of people like a flywheel. A flywheel is a device designed to efficiently store kinetic energy. It is made to be efficient in continuing its movement as it rotates over and over, but it is not made to change direction easily. I think people are the same way – we get wired to do the same things over and over, because changing how we do things uses up a lot of mental and physical effort that we have a limited store of. Think about it – most of the actions we take are pretty instinctive and natural at this point, driven by our habits and environment rather than conscious thought.
This entrenchment of tradition becomes even more difficult to overcome when a company or group is trying to shift behavior or culture of many people, not just one. No wonder more “cultural transformations” fail miserably.
So if you want to change behavior – in yourself, your team, or your company – it’s going to take more than simply prescribing the new behaviors and saying, “this is how it’s going to be.” There are a few approaches that researchers and practitioners have found to be helpful in defining and implementing change. I’ll focus mostly on cultural change, but these ideas can often be applied on a personal level as well.
Honor existing strengths
We establish culture and behavioral patterns over time, and there are often good intentions behind them. For example, a company may have established a strong culture of being fast and quick to implement ideas that resulted in decisions being made in silos and not taking into account additional stakeholders. It would be helpful to acknowledge that positive trait of wanting to be agile and fast to market, and build on top of that culture ways of working that supported multiple stakeholders. This way, the new cultural shift was an addendum rather than at war with the established behaviors.
Focus on the Most Important Adjustments
Remember how change is hard? We can’t change everything all at once, so it’s important to identify what is more important and focus on that. In other words, choose your battles. In a company setting, it may be helpful to hold some cross-team focus group meetings where people feel safe and encouraged to speak honestly about the current culture and its positive and negative traits. Doing this will bring to the forefront patterns of behavior that are most critical to address and change.
Integrate Strategy and Culture
Corporate strategy cannot be disconnected from a company’s culture. In fact, the culture must reinforce the strategic focus. There is a reason for the adage, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If the strategy is at war with the culture, the culture will win. So ask yourself the important question: Why do you want to change the culture? If you can’t clearly connect the cultural shift with the business strategy and objectives, then it’s just not going to happen.
Measure and Monitor Progress
Cultural shifts don’t happen immediately, but it is important to measure meaningful results to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. As stated before, cultural shifts should be connected with business objectives, so KPIs should be improving as the cultural change takes place. Additionally, can you recognize behavioral, mindset, and belief shifts that are going on? Some of this may be anecdotal, but there is a lot that can be learned from consistent surveying of company personnel.
Focus on the Long-Term
Did I mention change is hard? Don’t let that scare you, but do take the time to be intentional about how and why you want changes to occur. Cultures and behaviors are deeply embedded over time, so taking a long-term, steady approach using some of the ideas above is the way to go.