Culture is a hidden force in many organizations which is difficult to spot and hard to define. It can be accepted behaviours, common shared values, widely-held beliefs and hidden assumptions that are made regularly by an organization’s staff. It is “how things are done round here.” The people within an organization rarely notice its culture; it is so ingrained into them that they tend to follow its rules at a subconscious level. Culture is most obvious when someone tries to go against it; for example by openly questioning the boss in a highly hierarchical organization.
To successfully change any aspect of an organization, a change management team need to take account of the prevailing cultures. A good analogy is a boat sailing along a channel on a seemingly calm sea. Underneath the water however there is a strong tidal pull. If the boat is sailing against this tide it will hardly make any headway. Sailing in the other direction however, the tidal force will enhance the power of the sails to propel the boat forward. Just like the boat, if a change is pushing in the same direction as culture it will have far more chance of success than a change pushing against culture.
I did some consultancy recently for an organization that was trying to change to a more flexible working practice. They wanted to encourage employees to work at least one day from home. They hoped that this would give the employees a better work/life balance, improve morale and also enable the firm to cut back on expensive office space. The change management team had no problem delivering the more tangible products needed for flexible working: new laptops for the employees, secure remote access to the company’s network and home office equipment. However, they hadn’t taken into account, that flexible working went against the prevailing and very strong office culture. Presenteeism, the practice of turning up to work even when ill, was rife. Unconsciously senior management encouraged this by working long hours at the office themselves and by an overly controlling and supervisory style of management. Employees were very reticent to be away from the office for any length of time in case it damaged their employment prospects. The change failed to gain any traction in the organization.
The change management team needed to deliver an element of cultural change and this is one of the hardest changes to make in any organization. Culture is deeply ingrained and widespread. In this case, cultural change needed to start at the top. Senior management needed to lead the way by starting to work from home themselves and adapting their management style to be less supervisory and more focused on results.
Culture often has very deep roots in an organization, and if these roots are strangling a change initiative, the change management team need to allow a lot of time and effort to dig up these roots and create a more stable foundation for their change to flourish.