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Turning Culture Change on Its Head

Research shows that just like any other activity, we humans are more likely to embrace culture change if our change muscles are properly warmed up.

March 28th 2017

Culture change is notoriously difficult to achieve. In fact received wisdom suggests it can take years to shift an organisation’s culture. But what could happen if you turned the change process on its head?

Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model talks about a process, from creating urgency and forming coalitions through to vision and quick-wins. Step 8 is ‘anchor the change in corporate culture’.

What if you did it the other way around? What if you prepared your people for change first. And then you introduced the specifics. Our research (and our experience) suggests that warming your people up for change, just as you would invite them to warm up before physical exercise, can make a significant difference.

You are 27 times more likely to complete a given task if you have completed the one before

Data from over 15,000 people taking part in Do Something Different programmes with small easy to complete tasks suggests that you are 27 times more likely to complete a given task if you completed the one before. 

Put another way, change begets change.

It’s all about the lazy brain

The brain is a powerful habit machine which tends to repeat past actions and behaviours and actively avoids engaging in new behaviours. That’s why culture change is so hard. Because we typically default to what we know, not what we may know is best. Or what is different. Or new.

Of course, most of the time our brain’s ability to operate on autopilot is a good thing, saving us energy and keeping us safe. But when it comes to change in organisations, it’s one of the biggest obstacles – alongside fear of new things.

What this data shows is that once we click the lazy brain out of its habits and proactively choose to do something new, we are more likely to do something new again. Our psychologists believe this is partly because we are forging new neural pathways. And partly because we are learning that new isn’t frightening. In fact it’s very rewarding.

Change anything and you can change everything!

So let’s say you want to shift your culture from a traditional silo-based organisation to a more team-orientated culture.

Our data suggests that getting people to engage in behaviour change by taking small steps, like going home a different way from work for example, could be the way to start. A nice easy step that anyone can do. Then perhaps you ask them to sit in a different seat. Then you suggest they join a colleague they don’t normally work with for lunch or reach out via social/intranet or email.

This isn’t thinking about change. Or making the case for change. It’s doing.

These new activities, are simply warming up your people’s change muscles. Like stretching before you go jogging. And the more they do these little things, the more able they are to do the next.

With a carefully designed programme that slowly includes more of the teamwork behaviours you’ve identified as part of the new culture you want to achieve, you will soon see people adopting the culture change you have targeted, one small step at a time.






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