Culture as a Change Enabler


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When trying to bring about change at an organizational level, it is easy to focus on simply developing policies-procedures, but it is as an uphill challenge to in fact bring about change effectively through them. Part of the challenge lies in understanding and accepting that change management is directly correlated to and in fact dependent on culture. A 2013 study by the Katzenback center suggests “strong correlations between the success of change programs and whether culture was leveraged in the change process”.

To enable change successful leaders need to understand culture and navigate it. In the Harvard Business Review, July 2012 article: ‘Cultural Change that Sticks’, Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen and Caroline Kronley lay out five principles to implement change while keeping in mind organizational culture


1. Match Strategy and Culture.  Strategy tends to be a top down decision taken by executives determining the direction the company will head in – these decisions need to be made with a sound understanding of what the ‘current’ culture and the practices and behaviors that are already existent at the ground level. Strategy must be aligned with culture in order for it to be successful and lead to productive change.

2. Focus on a Few Critical Shifts in Behavior.  Change is tough. It is hard to try and change an entire category of behaviour or a generic category of ‘culture’. Instead focussing on few but key behaviors and cultural traits that are absolutely essential for the long term growth of the organization is a more effective way of enabling change. But how do you identify and change those behaviors? The first step is to closely observe the current socio-cultural environment and the prevalent behavior within the organization by engaging with and getting direct feedback from teams+team leaders.

3. Honor the Strengths of Your Existing Culture.  When enabling change it is easy to focus on only the negative aspects of the current culture or entirely ignore it to develop a completely new one. However either of the two may be hard to implement if viewed by employees as contrary to existent culture. In order for change to be effective and sustainable it is important to evaluate the current culture and leverage prevalent effective behaviors, norms, practices (aka culture) as valuable assets with the goal of making change a ‘shared evolution versus a top down imposition’.

4. Integrate Formal and Informal Interventions.  Often leaders focus on purely formal approaches to enabling change such as process, systems, benchmarks, rules versus more informal interactions such as emotional insights, cultural IQ, peer to peer conversations, one on one feedbacks, group discussions etc.   Infact integration of both approaches are key to successful change management.

5. Measure and Monitor Culture Evolution.  While it is easy to view the entire process of change management and its correlation with culture in abstraction and as a ‘phenomena’ that cannot be measured –> it is how ever essential to continually monitor and evaluate cultural progress. According to Katzenbach, Steffen and Kronley executives need to pay attention to four particular areas:  business performance, critical behaviors at multiple levels of the organization, meeting specific intervention milestones, and underlying beliefs/feelings/mindsets (the results of employee surveys).

Change and culture can be perceived at loggerheads with each other but a successful leader or leadership team recognises that culture is an ‘enabler’ for change and it is their responsibility to evaluate out how to harness culture in the company in order to build lasting change.


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