Cultural Evolution – When slowing down is the fastest way forward

perspectives Mar 23, 2018

While many change initiatives have clearly defined scope and timeframes, the pace with which culture can and will transform is highly variable. Whilst momentum is necessary to transform culture, there are times when the faster change is driven, the stronger the resistance, and the less likely we are to generate sustainable cultural transformation.

If this is happening in your organisation, it may be a good time to take stock and explore what some of the inhibitors to change may be. The following are typical inhibitors of rapid change and reveal that more work is required before the organisation is ready to accelerate its cultural evolution:

Cynicism or attachment to past experience hold residence over optimism and a will to the future

When organisations haven’t yet built readiness to accelerate, you will commonly hear phrases which indicate a lack of trust in leadership ability, feeling that change is being done “to” people and a lack of personal accountability for co-creating the change.

Options to mitigate this include:

  • Reminders that everyone in the organisation is on a learning journey (including leaders) and that change can take time for EVERYONE
  • Keep bringing attention to, and celebrating the things that are changing – this helps to shift perception and people may begin paying more attention to what is emerging
  • Often cynicism is a dress-up for deep caring or that people are seeing inhibitors that are not being addressed by the organisation. Find the positive intentions people have behind their cynicism and pay attention to considerations people bring.

Crucial parts of the organisation perceive they may ‘lose out’ from the change

Whenever an organisation undergoes significant change, there will inevitably be a redistribution of organisational resources, a reprioritising and focus on different areas, and a consequent shift in power.

There are numerous ways that power gets intentionally or unintentionally redistributed through change. From a person losing their prized window seat, through to reporting lines being shifted down the organisational hierarchy to substantial changes in assignments which may be received as demotions.

The very human inclination is to feel initial resistance. Some individuals get over this in the time it takes to write this sentence. On the other end of the spectrum, there may be people who convert their feelings of resistance into an underground movement that can take root for many years. This can be as subtle as stalling any changes, as obvious as renegotiating or building cases for why the older way was better, or as chaotic as opposing and undermining the so-called new recipients of power.

The role of those guiding change is to listen deeply to the concerns or objections raised and discern between those that are oriented towards self-protection and those that are oriented towards making the place better.

Honour the positive intent of those wanting to make the place better and explore what they have to offer.

For self-protective objectors, the journey to acceptance may take time and there may be some people who are not prepared or ready to embark on the journey in a timeframe that works for the organisation and its needs. Help these people to identify a sense of personal agency, even if this means choosing to move to a different organisation.

Progress leaks out through the cracks that have not been addressed

The early stages of any new movement can be fragile. There can be unforeseen consequences of the change that temporarily halt progress or diminish value.

Cracks could be systems and processes that make it easy for people to stay in past ways of behaving or key influencers that have not been brought into critical conversations.

As soon as ‘leakage’ becomes apparent, visibly invest energy and resources in fixing the hole. That will create very strong symbolism that the organisation is invested in the new way, and the initiative for change will not simply pass.

The accountability mechanisms are not yet strong enough to hold the aspirational change

When organisations bring in new ways of operating and new behavioural expectations, it is essential to both encourage and enable the new behaviours and also make it difficult to revert to old behaviours.

The process of evolution will almost certainly be imperfect and will be one of learning. There will be times when people may be tempted to revert to previous behaviours as these may be easier and feel safer. Every time the organisation allows this to occur, the previous culture is enabled.

To support the organisation moving forward, consider the following accountability mechanisms:

  • External coaches and facilitators to have conversations with leaders to reinforce their responsibility in embodying the new culture and creating accountability across their teams
  • Structural mechanisms to reinforce accountability. These can include:
    • People processes to reinforce desired values and behaviours,
    • Celebrating people who hold the accountability and embody the aspirational behaviours.
    • Regular reporting on cultural initiatives,
    • Sponsorship of culture work by a senior executive role model
    • Partnering with an accountability partner who has a vested interest in the other partner being part of the change

Complacency kicks in – early progress is taken as completion

An organisation we worked with made a profound change over initial interventions. Yet three months later, they had gone back to old habits and ways. When we explored this with the executive team, a common theme was “I thought we had changed” – not realising or appreciating how fragile new change can be and how readily we can revert to the safety of old behaviours and ways.

It is important to be brutally frank about how much work is still to be done, while highly celebrating all progress, and being optimistic about the next steps ahead.

Some questions we have found to be very powerful in exploring and helping to address these inhibitors include:

  • Where are the areas of misalignment and why do they exist?
  • What is the direction of the organisation and how empowered do people feel to contribute?
  • What level of honesty and transparency exists and how can this be built on further?
  • What important messages exist in the cynicism or resistance which haven’t yet been heard or addressed?
  • How can you give the work of cultural transformation to more people in the organisation so they experience a greater sense of personal agency and therefore responsibility?
  • How have you made it easy for people to live the emerging culture and difficult to revert?
  • How can you support early progress to be seen as a need to accelerate rather than become complacent?

To support cultural evolution we need an ability to sense into what the organisation needs, person by person, area by area. Speeding up, slowing down or maintaining the current pace are all viable options depending on what the organisation is experiencing. In the next blog in this series, we will explore staying the course of cultural transformation through all the ups and downs.

Read part one of this blog series here: Accelerating Your Organisation’s Cultural Evolution

If any of this article resonates with you and you can observe some of these challenges in your organisation, then you may be interested in the Adaptive Cultures community. The community of practitioners are actively exploring many of these themes within their sphere of organisations, and actively developing ways and means to respond and adapt.

Adaptive Cultures are holding the first European Practitioner Accreditation in August 2018. You can find out more here: Accreditation

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