5 KEY SUCCESS FACTORS FOR TRANSFORMING CULTURE AT SCALE

By Robert McVicar and Partners @Acumen Global Partners  

Most change and transformation initiatives fail. In fact, numerous research studies inform us that approximately 75% of all change efforts fail and do not achieve their intended effect. That’s staggering! No wonder organisations are change fatigued. The challenge for organisations is the unpredictable cause and effect response when advocating for change. In any organisation or ‘human system’, change is complex.  So, what are the companies who achieve the 25% of successful change initiatives doing right?

Increasingly leadership, culture and employee engagement are recognised as essential strategic enablers for organisations to thrive and successfully adapt to disruption and the unprecedented pace of change. For organisations looking for essential clues in navigating successful change initiatives, our experience has shown us that these are some of the critical success factors required:

1. Leaders must be willing to make deep change in themselves, directly mirroring the change they want to experience in the organisation – leaders must become the new culture!    

  • Before you spend your energy trying to change the organisation, it’s important that key leaders and sponsors of organisational change initiatives must embody the desired culture and behaviour they want in the business. Being capable of deploying the tangible elements of the change is one thing; re-navigating through the people junctions require another set of capabilities and leaders will need to become aware of their behavioural and attitudinal blind spots. We have a body of evidence that verifies that when leaders model the new culture, it supercharges the speed of change needed to get traction in the organisation as a whole. This is a crucial phase and the reason we list it first. 
  • People need to see and have ongoing evidence that their leaders are committed to the change. An organisational culture cannot surpass the consciousness of the leadership and research reinforces this, indicating that the leader(s) impact cultures by up to 70%. (Zenger & Folkman. The Extraordinary Leader. 2002) 

2. Change is clearly linked to strategy or business imperative.

  • People must be able to easily understand and communicate why the change initiative is important, organisationally and personally. For the change approach to stick and gain traction, it must have a compelling reason and foster a ‘creative tension’ so when people are asked to challenge the status quo, these ‘change agents’ will have the imprimatur of the business as well as a personal understanding of why the change is important. Having direct links to the strategy or the critical issues the organisation faces, provides essential fuel for those being invited to make the change on the ground. This generates highly meaningful relevance.

3. Small groups as units of transformation.

  • The future is created one gathering at a time. Small groups become an example of the future you want to create. The small group is the structure that allows the collective voices to be heard. The small group is a much easier unit to influence. Larger scale change occurs when enough small groups imbue a new way of doing things and these small groups spread and lead to larger transformational shifts. A hallmark of these small groups is that they create psychological safety, a space that optimises the conditions for breakthrough, a place where people feel safe to speak up, try new things, innovate, fail and try again. These small groups are designed to break down silos, where people come together to harness organisational wisdom – through connecting people from across the organisation –  and where input is heard from multiple vantage points. People are buoyed by connecting, and silos gradually dissolve, creating flow and new energy across the organisation.  https://hbr.org/2019/02/research-when-small-teams-are-better-than-big-ones
  • Small groups allow the ability to convene a different conversation. This is an essential capability required. There is a need to hone listening skills, to tune in, in ways that naturally enable others to speak up and to feel safe to try new things. We call it the ability of Holding SpaceHolding Space is possible when we learn to shut our mouths and open our hearts, to stay present and listen deeply to others. Groups will have a sense that they are in a safe hands and can take a risk, say what’s present and be honest and truthful. Holding Space invites people to drop their masks and pretences. When someone is holding space people naturally open up more. It requires skill to hold through the conversation tension, until glimpses of a new way emerge, and people begin to take ownership for this new way. Pockets of transformation emerge. The organisation begins to redefine itself into its future state, one small group at a time. To achieve this, it needs to be led internally.  (Community. The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block 2009)

4. Embedding the right learning language and micro-skills across the organisation.   

  • For the desired change to get traction and cascade deeper into the organisation in sustainable ways, developing people, (and developing your internal capability) is essential. This cannot be achieved through use of external experts only. It is important that people on the ground take ownership and lead the change. For this to occur effectively, people across the business will need to feel supported and equipped to develop the necessary skills.
  • Equipping hosts of these small groups with a new set of micro-skills and a common learning language is important, as learning becomes an enabler in how leaders work and interact. The power is in adopting a shared  language, that is catchy, which people can explain easily, replicate, pass down and demonstrate to their people. Any learning model used needs to be stripped of complexity so it doesn’t get in the way of the learning language being applied across the organisation. Done well, people will want to put posters on their walls and will find themselves confidently explaining the learning models to others. It will have a sense of fun, with pride bubbling over, particularly when evidence of the new way of working translates into more successful outcomes or improved ways of operating. The more tangible the benefits, the more power the learning language is given. 
  • It is important to recognise that organisations are human systems, and so the quality of communication at each critical node or intersection within the organisation is vital and reinforces the need to give time to enable and embed the micro skills required. 
  • Over time the learning conversation and the business conversation gradually become intertwined. These micro skills become a common language and will assist the organisation and act as a catalyser for a new culture to emerge.  

5. Going the distance – Commitment and Investment. 

  • For the desired outcome to be realised, the organisation must be willing to go the distance. It’s important that executive/senior leaders make this a strategic priority and provide the necessary support, resources and investment. This may mean appointing permanent roles to provide essential resources and focus, the mandate from managers to support change champions when usual business demands compete. The use of external expertise can assist in making this happen. What is important is that once started, organisations must follow the process through. Countless times we’ve seen organisations experiencing change fatigue as a result of unmindful change approaches and not seeing the journey through.  

Each organisation’s change or transformation program is influenced by unique dynamics, often involving complex interconnected factors, external pressures and specific strategic goals. However, from our experience working with organisations, we have observed that the factors listed above are always essential ingredients in creating the culture that can sustainably achieve lasting change and transformation.  Mobilising change requires mindfulness and a willingness to integrate all the complexities, despite the obstacles faced. In the last five years, we have observed significant uplift in commercial outcomes, net profit, productivity, engagement, cost reduction, successful innovation projects, new revenue streams and capability and capacity of leaders through their commitment to the principles listed above.

To explore how your organisation can engage and mobilise the internal capacity for transformation at scale, please email or call Robert on +61 402 796 008.

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