As with everything culture related, it’s always easier to start from a clean slate and shape the right kind of culture from the get-go, than it is to transform an existing culture.
However, medium and large organizations don’t have that luxury since they always have some kind of an existing culture in place, just like there was at Microsoft.
Thus, if you need to transform your existing, perhaps a bit stagnant, culture towards a new trajectory of growth and innovation, you’re going to need to take decisive action and understand that it will take quite a bit of time and effort to get things to change. Based on our experience, there are a few key things you should be focusing on to have the best possible chance of achieving such a transformation. These are, for the most part, applicable to any kind of cultural transformation and not just to innovation cultures.
1. Understand the Status Quo
Unfortunately, cultural change programs can often be nothing more than a few new values that a newly elected leadership of a company would like to see more of, without truly understanding the existing dynamics within the organization.
It’s also really important to understand why things are the way they are. Is the company mostly a result of the people that have been hired? Has it perhaps been shaped by the choices made in rewarding and promoting employees, or by the structure and processes the organization has?
By truly understanding the mechanics of your cultural system, you can preserve and cherish the strengths, but also introduce changes to things that can make a difference.
2. Cultural Change Starts from the top
A full-blown cultural transformation is such a massive undertaking that it always has to start from the top. It requires strong leadership and extensive commitment from top management.
Leaders do need to become role models for the kind of behavior that is expected from everyone, but that isn’t enough.
Leaders must constantly communicate the destination and the importance of this transformation in virtually all of their messaging, and be prepared to “walk the walk”, by committing to make the practical changes required to enforce the change.
3. Truly happens from the Bottom-up
As mentioned, while the transformation has to start from the top, it doesn’t happen if employees throughout the organization don’t buy-in, or if the ways of working within the company don’t also change at the grassroots level.
Remember, culture is simply a representation of the way people act in their day-to-day, and if that doesn’t change, nothing will happen regardless of how often you talk about the new culture.
Thus, you have to make forceful and impactful changes in everything that guides people’s behavior on a day-to-day basis. In practice, that means at least:
- Communication and Management Practices
- Resource Allocation Processes
- Hiring and Firing Decisions
- Rewards and Promotions
Here are a few practical suggestions that might help in creating a more innovation-oriented culture:
- Start with an idea challenge asking every employee what’s preventing them from innovating or from otherwise making progress, and commit to fixing many of these
- Run an idea challenge asking every employee to pinpoint the biggest frustrations existing customers have, and reserve a budget for addressing some of them
- Introduce continuous improvement processes for doing incremental innovation across the organization
- Reward and celebrate employees who contribute towards innovations in addition to their role
- Give anyone in the organization the possibility to test their ideas by applying for a toolkit like the Adobe Kickbox
- Consider innovativeness and desire to make real change happen in every hiring decision across the organization
4. Clear focus and Quick Wins to Gain Momentum
In a large organization, you can’t possibly change everything overnight. Just choose a few of the most important areas that can make a difference and start from those. Make sure that you can score some “quick wins” with the first initiatives, as this will help get everyone onboard and excited about the upcoming journey.
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5. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – and with Purpose
As most of us in leadership positions have learned, you need to keep communicating the same things over, and over, and over to get the message through.
And when you think you really can’t take it anymore, you’re likely just starting to get through to most of the employees.
However, there are a couple of other tips that can really help to get the message through, and to get everyone onboard:
Be Transparent. When you’re honest and transparent about where you currently are, and where you want to go, you’ll get people’s attention and build trust.
Have a Real Purpose, or “the why”. If the transformation doesn’t have a big and meaningful purpose behind it, it’s unlikely that you’ll get the majority onboard. On the other hand, if that “why” is either a question of life and death for the organization or a highly aspirational goal like an authentic way to make the world a better place, you’ll be guaranteed to win people over.
Create a Motto. Good mottos are memorable and great at capturing people’s imagination because they’re so concise and to the point. For example, pretty much everyone in the business world knows Facebook’s culture as being symbolized by their old motto: “Move fast and break things”. It’s a great motto because it communicates a very conscious decision about what the company values, and what it is willing to sacrifice to make that happen. Later on, they changed it to “Move fast with stable infrastructure”, which although not as catchy, was still effective in communicating the changing priorities of the company as it grew.
Use Stories. The final tip is to use stories to reinforce your message and make it more memorable. People rarely remember stats or a list of values, but they always remember great stories. If it’s an emotional and personal one, you’re guaranteed to make an impact with it.
Whenever one embarks on a cultural transformation, the only certain thing is that everything won’t go as planned.
6. Measure, Learn, and Iterate
And finally, as culture doesn’t change overnight, you have to be prepared for an extended period of ongoing adjustments. Whenever one embarks on a cultural transformation, the only certain thing is that everything won’t go as planned.
A common mistake many makes is to simply execute the initial transformation plan, and then look for positive signals that show that you’re heading in the right direction.
Cultural change is always an iterative process, so be prepared for the challenges that you’ll inevitably face, and you’ll surely find ways to overcome them with perseverance.