A full stack approach to corporate culture change

Avoiding the usual pitfalls of culture change means focusing on coherence and meaning.

culture - innovation copilots

Even when most of the “right” ingredients were implemented, most corporate culture changes fail anyway. And the quintessential trap is always the same: the culture of a company is a multi-layered assemblage. Work on one layer at a time (such as the behaviours) and you’ll have results. However, after a while, other layers that were unchanged (values, vision…) will collide and counteract the initial results. These various elements of corporate culture move at different speeds. They don’t even have the same plasticity and are driven by factors that can be very counter-intuitive. In the end, avoiding a full-stack approach to corporate culture change is a rookie mistake. Let’s see then how to deal with it…

When DNA resists culture change

DNA is the nature of the organisation, it doesn’t change ever (apart for some rare successful hybridisation). It is simple and drives the complexity of the culture. It comes from the birth of the organisation: its founders, ancestors and time of birth. For organisations, we can use many ways to look at its DNA. We chose to focus on its drive: future-driven, market-driven or process-driven.

Culture is a more complex package of interdependent elements moving at different speeds:

  • The values evolve with time but very slowly;
  • The vision is adapted to context and evolving markets;
  • The norms and behaviours can change fast or slow depending on activation, drive and coherence with DNA.

Corporate culture change full-stackEvery organisation like a living organism has a DNA. For some, the culture is clear, for many it is present but not clearly beneficial, and for a few, culture is a superficial aggregate of buzz words, trendy practices and behaviours disconnected to DNA.

Eighty percent of M&A fail, since DNA are seldom compatible even if the cultures in surface may match. We worked with an industrial “market-driven” subsidiary who is trying to align to the “process-driven” rest of the corporation. Even though in appearance, it seems compatible: a population of engineers, same industry, same nationality. In reality, the change is not happening the “market-driven” nature is resisting.

full-stack approach to corporate culture change

The disconnection between DNA and culture may result in:

  • Contradictory injunctions such as expected behaviours “be an intrapreneur” (take initiatives and risks) with a process oriented DNA calling for operational excellence, high quality and predictability;
  • Setting up hard process oriented KPIs of speed and efficiency in a customer-oriented organisation, resulting in either or both: loss of engagement of customer-facing employees or resistance and low performance on KPIs;
  • Imposing new processes and methods in a future-driven team, control and measurement hence stifling creativity.

Many companies work on the vision and behaviour change without addressing the deeper layers of values and DNA, and then they don’t understand why the transformation is not happening, why people resist or do not comply.

Start with fundamentals

As you may have guessed we start with the deeper layers: first understanding the DNA and then identifying the key values that will be the basis of the organisation culture and that are coherent with the company’s nature. These are the organisation’s fundamentals.

Working on the fundamentals is not about having a list, it is about carefully crafting the stories and the logic of a few values to live by.

Working with clients, we usually focus on a maximum of 3-4 values and we give them meaning, we describe them, we connect them to the vision of the company (often worked on in parallel with Philippe), to its DNA and history too, we illustrate them with pictures and with real existing practices and we share them with everyone. This is NOT about making a democratic decision about what words suit most people, it is about building a set of simple and meaningful reference anchors for anyone in the organisation. I usually feel like an anthropologist studying an organisation and then reflecting it back to itself.

This is NOT about making a democratic decision about what words suit most people, it is about building a set of simple and meaningful reference anchors for anyone in the organisation. I usually feel like an anthropologist studying an organisation and then reflecting it back to itself.

Here we are looking for simplicity, coherence and truth: the test being do employees recognize themselves? Does it ring true and meaningful?

At Netflix, employees are given a lot of autonomy because their fundamentals are clear and simple: “Act in Netflix’s best interest.” It is simple and deeper than it looks because of course just reading this you may think there is a lot of room for interpretation, and yes there is risk too. The secret is that the words are just a simple way to remember something more profound behind the words that is shared and understood throughout the company: “we trust you to use your talent and resources to the best of your abilities so that you can look after our collective and we can grow together …” It is not about writing the words and then telling employees:  “here are our values”, it is about sharing their profound meaning so that they can recognize on their own the behaviours and decisions that are in coherence with these fundamentals.

Which brings me to my next step: aligning the behaviours to the fundamentals, whilst avoiding the issues mentioned earlier in the behaviour-focus culture change.

Support and trust rather than decide and control

Of course, culture change requires critical mass: an engagement of 30% of the population behaving in the “new way” and the rest will follow. That engagement needs support over time in many various forms to reinforce the change.

On the behaviours level, once the fundamentals are truly understood, recognized, acknowledged, and owned, three key actions are required to support the behaviour change:

  1. Energize: Ensuring that a corporate culture change based on the fundamentals is a priority.

> Actions from everyone in the company to inspire and motivate efforts, to share stories, to follow on progress and to value achievements and learnings.

“While culture change can be an important and exciting project for HR, making it HR’s sole responsibility doesn’t work out as anyone had hoped.” Rebecca NEWTON

2. Autonomize: Letting people find their own way to contribute

> Encouraging leaders and teams to connect the values to concrete everyday practices / behaviours. Giving them the freedom to adapt the behaviours in their own way. Trusting that they will do their best to be aligned with the fundamentals.

3. Weaponize: Supporting their development

> Giving them the tools and means, or letting them go get them. Letting them decide how they want to grow, what they want to learn or what skills they need to develop, and giving them the means to do it. Hiring for cultural fitness, people who will be able to grow with the company.

“True culture change means altering the way the organization lives and breathes. It shapes the way people make decisions, get their work done, what they prioritize, and how they interact with colleagues, clients, and customers.” Rebecca NEWTON

In conclusion…

A corporate culture change shapes the way people work, it doesn’t control it, it can only influence it. When you’re ready for such an evolution, start with this fundamental question: “What is our DNA?” before moving to the values.

In a following article, we will explore three scenarios of such change depending on the lifestage of your organisation… Stay tuned.

Author: Stéphanie

Specialist of Executive Coaching and Entrepreneurial Mentoring, insightful and open-minded, Stéphanie accompanies organisations in their cultural transformation to support innovation and business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.