Three simple steps to kickstart culture change in your organization
March 22, 2022
Kathy Miller Perkins, one of our Career Coaches, shared this helpful advice in her Forbes.com column recently, and we are happy to bring it to you here.
Organizations are under fire as every company continues to experience unprecedented turbulence. Supply chains are stuck. Employees persist in leaving their jobs. And other stakeholders are shifting their expectations and becoming more demanding.
No wonder leaders are scrambling for ways to navigate through the turmoil. As a leader who wishes to succeed in these trying times, you can focus on building resilient, innovative, and engaging organizational cultures. It would help if you had a strategy.
While you should not take this task lightly, you don't have to spend a great deal of time and money to get started. Three simple steps should be sufficient to kickstart the process of developing your game plan for transforming your culture.
Step 1: Envision the culture you need
You can start by exploring how the people in your organization picture a positive and productive future. Set the stage for the discussion by providing a context. Describe the challenges and opportunities you foresee. Then, ask them about their hopes for the future. Here are a few ways to discover their views.
- Ask positive questions
Change occurs through conversations, stories, and relationships. When you ask positive and forward-looking questions, most team members will respond enthusiastically. Who wouldn’t want a brighter future?
The science of positive psychology offers strategies for change uniquely suited for these dark times. Practitioners of this school of thought claim that imagining what we desire for the times ahead will guide present-day actions to create positive change.
Many frameworks for change concentrate on solving problems. In contrast, positive psychology, and a change process that grew out of it, appreciative inquiry, recommend attending to organizational and team strengths. A strength-based focus lights up imaginations as to what a desirable future could deliver.
You could begin by asking this simple positive question: what would our organization look like if we performed at our best? People will likely be invigorated by dreaming of a positive future for themselves and the company.
- Draw pictures of the vision
Another great way to gather input from your team members is to ask them to draw how they view a positive future for the organization. And they don't have to be artists to participate.
In a recent culture workshop, the facilitator asked the participants to illustrate how they envisioned a healthy culture using simple stick figure drawings. One person produced two stick figures with large ears and small mouths reaching out to each other. Another drew simple line figures in a circle holding hands. A third drew a pyramid of stick figures with characteristics suggesting diversity holding each other up. These simple drawings can lead to powerful insights. And indeed, the illustrations will spark many conversations.
Step 2: Describe the culture you have
You can carry out this second step much like you approached Step 1, except that the focus shifts to the current state.
Ask positive questions about the current culture
To explore how people view the current culture, you might ask what they value most about their work and the organization. You might ask them what the team looks like when functioning most effectively. Then you can follow up by asking them to express three wishes for what might enhance the health of the organization or team. While these questions are positive, they get at issues to address nevertheless.
Draw a picture of your current culture
Now, ask your team members to grab their pencils one more time and draw their perceptions of your current culture. A few of the participants in the workshop discussed previously produced drawings such as stick figures with their backs to each other, small groups with walls separating them, and two diverse groups yelling at each other with the words of one group flying over the heads of the other.
Others drew more positive pictures, such as figures sharing information and team members reflecting or learning. The elementary illustrations were highly enlightening. The differences in the drawings opened up stimulating discussion concerning how things work currently throughout the organization. The team discovered pockets of strengths and areas that could improve. All of the pictures told stories. And remember, often images communicate better than words.
Step 3: Gather ideas for moving towards the desired future
Once you have opened discussions of their visions for the future and their perceptions of the current state, you can explore the priorities you will address in your culture change game plan.
Compare the future vision to the current state
Compare their future versus present descriptions and drawings. Ask them to tell stories depicting how the organization could leverage the current cultural strengths to move toward the desired culture productively. Likewise, ask them for narratives describing how to eliminate present cultural barriers that could hinder achieving the desirable scenarios.
Gather stories or pictures of how to move from here to there
If you merely ask your team members to tell you how they think change should occur, they are likely to use vague language such as, “We need to increase trust,” or “The organization should become more collaborative.” A lack of precision will inhibit progress.
On the other hand, stories and pictures are excellent vehicles for getting at concrete and specific actions you can include in your game plan. Your team members are likely to depict real people engaging in tangible activities to bring about change.
Discuss what to stop, start, and continue
You can round out your data gathering for your game plan by asking some straightforward questions. For example, ask your team members to weigh in on behaviors that need to change. The facilitator of the culture workshop mentioned previously asked the participants to talk about what their organization, including all leaders and team members, should keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to create the future culture they wanted and needed.
You can do it!
You can quickly develop a sound and actionable game plan by taking a few simple, enjoyable steps to kickstart the process. And the bonus is you are more likely to achieve the engagement and buy-in you need to succeed in implementing your plan since you based it on direct input from your team.
Kathy Miller Perkins is a psychologist and a leadership and career coach. In her role as the owner and CEO of a consulting firm, she has assisted leaders of global corporations and educational institutions. Kathy directs a research program exploring the culture and leadership characteristics of successful purpose-driven organizations. She authored the book, Leadership and Purpose: How to Create a Sustainable Culture, and writes regularly for Forbes.com. Kathy obtained her B.A. and M.A. from Indiana University and her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Kentucky. She is currently pursuing B Corps certification—a designation for businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.