Select Page

Three building blocks of sustaining culture change

Shifting a culture is time consuming. Coming up with new ideas or new ways to behave –  is the easy part. Too many times, shiny new ideas become the “flavor of the month” or worse, over time turn into “pencil whipping” exercises.

So how do you ensure that behaviors are changing? How do you instill new habits? How do you ensure the change is sustainable and part of the team DNA? I propose there are at least three fundamental building blocks to setting the right tone and tenor for culture change:

Building Block 1

  • Maintain consistency in words and actions.

I had a boss in a meeting who said to a co-worker, “Your actions are speaking so loud, I can’t hear what you’re saying.” It made an impression on me that there needs to be a consistency between our words and our actions. They are inextricably linked.

Kinetic energy is a good example of how consistency works. In physics, the kinetic energy of an object is the energy that it possesses due to its motion. It is defined as the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its stated velocity. Having gained this energy during its acceleration, the body maintains this kinetic energy unless its speed changes.¹ 

In your workplace – what’s your kinetic consistency energy (KCE)  between your words and your actions? Have you moved the body from a rest state into a stated velocity? Think about your approach.

Building Block 2

  • Create actions that are sustainable.

Thinking of actions is the easy part. I would be willing to bet we’ve all been in blue sky brainstorming sessions where the team white boards a really creative approach to solving a problem. But when that very idea is put to work it causes an unintended consequence which no one saw coming.

The next time you and your team are investigating a new way to do something – take the time to also think through what they could look like in a year’s time. Vet the sustainability of the action being used to drive cultural shifts.

Building Block 3

  • Assess if the actions are driving the culture shift you are wanting.

There are two types of evaluation, summative and formative. Summative evaluation focuses on the outcome of a program whereas Formative evaluation focuses on the in-process at a particular moment in time. Both are needed if you are really looking to change culture.

One caveat to evaluation is the willingness to change based on new data. Your initial plans may need adjusting or maybe, heaven forbid, even scrapped. Are you willing to go where the data tells you to go? Sometimes this is harder than you’ll ever imagine. Don’t start culture change unless you are willing to have some level of flexibility in the plan/vision.

Cultural changes are made up of attitude changes. If it was just a list of “go dos”, cultural changes would be easy. Driving change into a team’s DNA takes time and consistency. Start the journey – just realize it is a journey.

Be intentional


Form, Function and Your Organizational Structure.

An organizational structure is one of those things that can make or break a team’s ability to deliver the goal. It is a topic some leaders, at their own peril, choose to ignore.

There are many debates, and some holding passionate positions, on the kinds of organizational structures that work. A matrix organization can be centralized or decentralized but should you matrix in the first place? A matrix may remove silos but, as the human capital argument goes, how well does an employee do with more than one boss? An analogy is having two simultaneous bills due but only enough cash to pay one. Who does the employee “pay”? This question has filled many volumes of business journals.

What about centralization versus de-centralization. Do you centralize or de-centralize the operations? Both have pros and cons. A centralized operation, if not careful, can get bogged down in decision making and many layers of management whereas a de-centralized operation may end up with competing points of view on direction. Before throwing your hands in the air and walking away, maybe you could consider a hybrid of the two.

If we called the organizational structure you operate under the “form” and what you do, your “function” then maybe, “Form follows function”. Yes I know it’s a 20th century principle more associated with architecture and industrial design (which, yes, has been endlessly debated as well). But something about it appeals to my inner engineer.

The essence of form following function is that how something is shaped should be based upon its intended purpose. If we took that idea and applied it to an organizational structure, then how a group is organized should be based on its purpose – they are tightly linked.

There are volumes written on the subject of matrix, centralized or de-centralized organizations – and my intent here is not to say one is particularly better than the other. What I am trying to get at is you should take the time to make a rational decision for your environment. Don’t leave it up to chance. If there’s a “function” issue for your organization, consider looking deeper into its “form”.

Be intentional,

Stress: When Vision and Reality Collide

Recently a friend shared something they learned in a management class:

Stress is created by the gap between vision and reality.
To reduce stress, change the vision or change the reality.
One or the other must change*.

It is really quite a simple idea, though many struggle with it. I don’t think people struggle with understanding that the gap causes stress – I believe they struggle with the idea of having to “change” what they want or with how best to change their reality. My husband says that the only change he likes is if it’s loose and in his pockets.

Should you change your vision?

Your vision of what reality should be may be right or it may be wrong. Only you can decide that. This concept does not judge or challenge the vision. It may be your dream, it may be your understanding of how things should be, or it may be what those around you are defining as the vision. This question only asks if the vision needs to be adjusted.

Assess the vision. Take a hard look and decide if you need to change it.

Should you change your reality?

Instead of griping about the situation – change it. A former Program Manager I knew used to say; “Own what’s yours.” What do you need to do to change your reality to align with your vision? Things like training, organization, better communication, and clarification all can change a reality.

Assess the reality. What is necessary for you to do to obtain the vision.

As leaders, we must clearly communicate a vision, and provide the things necessary for the reality to align to the vision. If your team seems stressed, ask yourself if it is their vision or reality that needs adjusting. Better yet, ask your team. They’re smart people. They’ll know.

Disclaimer: We all know there is both good stress and bad stress. To obtain world class quality it is necessary to embrace a vision that reality has not yet quite achieved AND the stress of getting there is not bad. It drives continuous improvement. It is only when we are either defeated or apathetic that good stress turns into bad stress.

Remember, the first step in making any change is recognizing what needs to change. So either change your vision or change your reality. Pick. Act. De-stress.

Be intentional,

*Paraphrased quote from Gustav Kaeser Training International management training

Can You Name the Four Invisible Culture Influencers?

800lb communication gorilla

Can you identify the “800 pound gorilla” in your meeting nobody will discuss? (Maybe a simple banana will make it go away?)

Last week we talked about culture – and how we all are contributors to the culture we live in. How we contribute is influenced by the infrastructure we operate within.

Using the example of meeting structure, we looked at how the culture of safety was influenced. Some other things that could/do influence culture would be: communication tools, problem solving space, reporting / governance. Anything that influences our interactions with each other plays a part in our infrastructure. If you can identify key components, cultural shifts can be sparked by some basic simple changes. The hard part is tuning into what those things could be.

Of all the possible influencers, there are four invisible influencers on culture that I would like to explore over the next couple of weeks:

  • Meeting structures
  • Electronic communication
  • Questions
  • Bad news

I use the word “invisible” because they are usually ignored just like the proverbial “800 pound gorilla in the room”. They shape the interactions we have, and by shaping them they can either add or subtract from the culture. Most of the time, people put little thought into these interactions. We must understand why we do stuff and be intentional in what we do.

Over the next week please think about the following questions:

  • Why do we say we “have too many meetings?”
  • How come no one ever says, “I can’t wait for that meeting. I’m stoked. I want to get there early. Giddy-up.”
  • Do we understand why we have been invited to a meeting?
  • Do we go to meetings with expectations? Does the meeting organizer know our expectation? Do we know the meeting organizer’s expectation?
  • Meetings can be informational, discussion based, informal working meetings… Which kind of meetings do you think you have too many of?
  • How many meetings do you schedule vs attend?
  • If not in meetings, where do you think communication is taking place, or should take place?

I am going to be seeking some informal feedback over the next week. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Be intentional

Only You Can Prevent a Culture Change


US Ranger Bear cookie jar, circa 1960s. Only I can choose “not” to eat that extra cookie.

I’ve always liked Smokey the Bear Ads. You know the ones where he said, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” He made it so personal. He made me responsible. He put me “in-charge.” I controlled the destiny of the forest around me. I believe the same can be said about culture. While culture may rest in you, you by yourself are not a culture.

Let me explain.

Culture is one of the more nebulous words in our vocabulary. Whether discussing the culture of a country, pop culture, Culture Club, or the culture of a company – not only do people have different conceptual differences in what culture is, they have vastly different views on what kind of culture they prefer. Then comes the discussion on what kind of actions (positive or negative actions) drive cultural change. And do we even mention sub-cultures?

Webster defines culture as a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization. The more I think about culture the more I am coming to believe that culture consists of thousands of daily interactions that come in all sizes and emotions.

In math terms, it is the summation of all the times people interact with each other. As I said earlier, a single person is not a culture. I am not even sure two people make a culture. Rather it is the collision of each of us into each other that creates a fragrance that defines our culture. However, a single person, or two, can interact enough with others to change the fragrance (for good or bad) because a little yeast can work its way through the whole batch. That makes changing culture hard – hard because you cannot control thousands of daily human interactions.

However, you can control foundational structure – if you take the time to figure out the cornerstones. Once you figure them out, you can rock the building (so to speak). It could be as simple as how a meeting is structured. How meetings are run says a lot about your culture – planning, trust, what is important and what isn’t. It is simple things that create hundreds of interactions a week that shape your culture.

Every company has a culture. There are great parts of the culture. There are parts of the culture that must evolve. There are parts of culture yet to be defined. We are each part of a culture – we are each adding or subtracting to the interactions – we are each improving the culture or subtracting from it. Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to explore foundational structures that control culture, and where teams can come together to shift culture.

It might be trite, but just like a forest fire can start with one, a culture shift starts with each individual. All your interactions in a day add up to your participation in a culture, which is part of the definition of the culture. Every where you go, there you are! Think about it.

As we explore the topic of culture I’d love to hear ways you have seen or think culture can be shifted. What’s worked? What didn’t? Why?

Be intentional!