How to Change a Culture

The art of organisational judo

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry*

Q: How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one, but the bulb has got to really WANT to change.

— Anonymous

The first thing to realise when you are working to transform a culture is that it is impossible to do so.

No, if you want a culture to move in a certain direction, you need to prevail on the organisation to change itself. You need to work within the existing culture, using its strength and that of the people in it, to take you where you want to go.

This is, of course, much more an art than a science. I don’t hold myself up to be much of an artist, but I have had some requests to discuss my experiences changing culture. I will share some of what I have learned in this post.

Be clear about the destination

“If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up someplace else.”

— Yogi Berra

It’s not enough to be unhappy with the culture you have, or to see some things that need fixing. Every culture has advantages and drawbacks, and so it is important to put real thought into the cultural attributes that you wish your organisation to display. Like most complicated things, there needs to be design put into your desired culture.

Once you have a clear idea of the destination, communicate it clearly (and repeatedly). You’re trying to get a group of people to collectively transform deeply ingrained habits and assumptions. If they don’t have a clear understanding of what the destination looks like, the best you will get is that old undesirable cultural attributes get replaced with new undesirable cultural attributes.

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Align process and structure

One of the biggest obstacles to achieving the culture you want is if the processes and structures within the organisation are not aligned to the culture you want to create.

When I first joined Airtasker as VP Engineering, I wanted to move our Engineering team towards a culture of caring about product outcomes. At the time we had a matrix structure where engineers joined product managers and product designers in cross-functional product teams, but each engineer reported to a “line manager” who was aligned with their technical specialty (e.g. Android specialists reported to the Android line manager). The line managers in turn had limited visibility into or capacity to influence the work of each cross-functional team their reports worked in. As a consequence, engineers did not care terribly much about product.

One of my early moves then was to realign engineering management such that all engineers on a product team reported to the same manager, regardless of specialty. This had an immediate effect in terms of creating a more product-oriented culture.

Other examples of aligning process and culture:

  • If you want to create a culture of collective accountability and cooperation, don’t judge people’s performance based on individual KPIs, and don’t rank people on a curve.

  • If you want to create a culture of outcomes over outputs, it will be necessary to replace roadmaps with OKRs (or similar) as the primary tool for planning and alignment.

  • If you want a culture of open communication, change default permissions in your documents from “invite only” to “public”.

Sometimes you may have to “fake it until you make it.” At Airtasker we have had significant success with changing the structure and process first, and then letting the culture catch up to it. The new processes and structures can act as a hint and a signpost. This can be a little messy in the short term when there is a mismatch between the legacy culture and the new processes, but can often be the quickest way to get to the destination.

Note that process changes alone are not able to change a culture, but without alignment it can be very hard to achieve the culture you want.

Recruit cultural allies

A leader’s ability to influence culture by simply delivering “sermons from on high” is quite limited. The real action happens on the ground, in the actions and words of individual people in individual teams.

One of the most effective ways a leader can start to turn a culture around is to identify “cultural allies,” people within teams who strongly resonate with the cultural message you are trying to send and are willing to lead by example in their daily actions. There will nearly certainly have some people like that within the organisation. Find them, and take them into your confidence. Explain what you’re trying to achieve and that you’re relying on them to be at the vanguard. Promise your active support in doing this, and make sure you follow through with actions such as publicly calling out the good work these people are doing.

Sometimes the allies you have within your organisation are not quite enough to get you there. When hiring new people, it is important to ensure that they are aligned with where you are going culturally. It can be valuable in their first week to express that you are seeking to transform the culture and that, once again, their role in modelling the behaviours and mindset you are seeking to establish is critical and high-impact work (and will be recognised as such).

Celebrate small wins

Culture doesn’t change all at once, and so the journey of transformation can sometimes feel a bit gruelling. When you see a win, call it out. Not only will this boost morale and increase resolve, doing this will in itself enhance the transformation process. People emulate positive examples, so highlight those where you see them and you will find other people starting to do the same things.

And remember: it’s all small wins. A cultural transformation is a game incremental steps. Celebrate each one.

Be patient

Cultural change take time (that’s why we celebrate the small wins). It is also subject to compounding effects, so it’s important to stick with it. Give yourself at least 12 months to get to a point of meaningful change. But when you have spent a year or so on the journey, do take the time to reflect back on where you were when you started. You will probably be surprised by how much progress has been made.

*Although Antoine de Saint-Exupéry actually had significant military accomplishments as an aviator as well as possessing poetic whimsicality, I’m not sure he’s the person I’d pick to raise my navies.

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