Does Culture eat Transformation for Breakfast?

We all know that change is a constant in the business world. If you have read any of our earlier blogs you will recall us mentioning this once or twice… And we are reiterating it again, it’s a simple unavoidable fact in today’s corporate landscape.


Do we need to consider organisational culture?

When we talk about culture in the organisational sense what do we mean?

We mean the way things are done, the shared values and beliefs that shape how people act, interact and perform their roles within the organisation.

Our research highlights that the functions of culture, dialog and relationships are often overlooked during organisation transitions. We want to explore the role and impacts that culture and interconnectedness play in transformations.

Often during change programmes, a silo biased or over simplified lens is applied to the planning and implementation of changes. Deliverables and work streams are looked at as discrete components (IT or HR, Process or People). The interconnectedness of the system as a whole and the impact of an organisation’s culture can be reduced in importance or even simply overlooked. These points will apply equally to smaller projects as they do to large scale programmes. For brevity, we will refer to all as programmes.


How culture and transitions interact

Our experience of large transformational programmes (be they IT, People, Regulatory, Culture and/or Operating Model) is that they are more successful when leaders know how their organisations and cultures function. Particularly where values are clearly articulated and behaviours are aligned to the programmes outcomes.

Yet, rarely do transformation programmes take the time to understand the organisation’s culture and map that to the programme and its desired outcomes.

When the transition programme and organisational culture are aligned, this is often observed as swift and successful delivery. It’s productive and positive integrated relationships, supported by general ‘Can Do!’attitudes that often are experienced in successful transformation programmes.

When the transition programme and the culture are at odds with each other there is likely to be a negative impact to both the transformational outcome and the organisation as a whole. These can be observed as increased politics, resistance to ‘new and different’, and slipping timelines, which all combine to stall or derail the transformation process.

Often transformation teams’ responses to challenges are to try to continue on the same pathway, trying to force through implementations ‘to drive the square peg into the round hole’.

This is a natural response to implementation challenges, sometimes we face difficult choices when trying to deliver change.

Yet without an understanding of the organisation’s culture and how it relates to the planned transformation, this can generate risk to both the transformation efforts and the wider organisation from trying to force through change.


Can culture and transformation be compared?

If faced with a suspected mismatch of culture and outcomes during implementation, it’s helpful to take some time and effort to understand these differences, to pose some key questions and be able to respond congruently when asked (because someone inevitably will)

1. How is the intended transformation aligned to the existing culture?

2. What needs to change or flex to bring them closer?

3. If we must proceed ‘as is’and accept the mismatch (and its consequences), why?

4. How and when can we revisit this question to resolve it?

At a minimum, this allows for transparency that the culture and the transformation are not aligned, highlighting areas where they pull in different directions and where effort is needed if they are to become realigned.

Acknowledging the relationship between the existing culture and the transformation agenda, helps to deliver the transformation programme and prevent the unknown consequences of wider cultural damage. 

Communicating this relationship to the wider organisation helps to engage the workforce. Preventing those observing, but not directly involved in the change, from perceiving that culture is being disregarded in the name of progress.


Dialog is key

Earlier we noted the potential pitfalls of isolated or siloed change in transformation work. Obviously, from a planning, implementation, tracking and reporting perspective, this is perfectly valid and works well in many cases.

In organisations where dialog is not actively engaged these pitfalls become more likely. What we have found in organisations where dialog is encouraged and flourishing, it helps foster the sense of ‘interconnectedness’ between teams, management, functions, silos and roles irrespective of involvement in the transformation programme.

Will an organisation that has dialog as a cornerstone of its culture, be that implicit or explicit, avoid these issues completely?

No, dialogue isn’t a panacea. Dialogue reduces the risk of oversight of unknown issues. Allowing them to be found earlier in the change cycle and support more effective resolution.

Through both our research and practice, we have observed the impacts of culture and interconnectedness to transformation programmes. 

Some examples we can share are:

  • Merging cultures for people to work together in a matrix, not knowing the culture and the environment, leads to silos and ‘us and them’ stances being formed
  • Implementing new CRM tool, not understanding existing ways of working, individual goals and rewards systems, leads to staff finding work arounds to not lose control of their leads/clients
  • Implementing new Risk Management Tool across an organisation mandated by the board to address new regulatory requirements, was delayed and disrupted as it was not in the interest of the product line stakeholders to give up their data and create transparency


Culture at the start of the transformation journey 

We have highlighted earlier some of the questions that can be asked when you are already implementing change and believe you might have a culture/transformation mismatch.

What can you do to reduce the risks of encountering the mismatch if you are still planning your change journey?

Some questions that can help understand the relationship between the transformation programme and organisational culture are:

  • How will the change align to the organisation’s strategy?
  • How will the change align to the organisation’s culture?
  • Who will the change impact and in what way?
  • What will need to be adapted and/or implemented?
  • What are the complex/divergent aspects involved?
  • What are the boundaries of the change, where does it begin/end?
  • How will this change impact the culture?
  • How will our ways or working be different?

Answering these questions forms a basis to map the interconnections between change and culture whilst still in the planning phase. This also provides a reference point when encountering bumps on the road to implementation.


How is your organisation’s culture influencing your change agenda? 

If the impact of culture on your organisation’s change programmes is unclear we invite you to pause, consider your culture, ask questions and understand how culture is influencing your transition.

 So ‘What do you think?’ Does Culture eat Transformation for Breakfast?


If you would like to discuss this in more detail, please contact us here at Transition Dynamics.

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