If we accept that the human reaction to an imposed change is shaped by culture as much as by experience, then it follows that any approach to managing change needs to be adapted to take account of the prevailing organisational culture. Sounds obvious and straight forward?  In theory, possibly; in practice, rarely!

First, let's establish what 'organisational culture' means in this context?

As much as we like to think of ourselves as individuals, at some level we are all tribal by nature. It is fundamental to the human condition to associate ourselves with others that we are like - or at least aspire to be like in some way. The norms and values of these groups will greatly influence our view of the world and our reaction to it. This commonality can be defined as 'Culture' and is as prevalent in business organisations as it is in any other aspect of life. Its significance for the management of organisational change is that the extent to which individuals accept and adopt change is significantly affected by the norms and values of the group(s) that the individual associates within the organisation.

Understanding and even harnessing culture can greatly increase the chances of achieving acceptance and adoption of change, while ignoring the prevailing culture or worse still over-simplifying it can be highly counterproductive. Consequently, as change managers we need to take practical steps to account for culture when shaping our approach.

However, playing the cultural card throws up a number of challenges that make it a tactical conundrum.

1.       How do we determine what cultures are in play?

The early stages of a project present a number of opportunities to start assessing the cultural landscape:

Building an insightful team

Ensuring that the project team in general and the change management team in particular include a critical mass of recruits from the business (as distinct from consultants or contractors) is an obvious measure. The insight that these individuals provide is invaluable in ensuring that the change approach works with the cultural grain wherever possible and consciously challenges the norm when necessary.

Using cultural diagnostic tools

There are a number of cultural diagnostic tools and services available as part of established change management frameworks (a quick Goole excursion in 'Cultural Diagnostic Tools' will give you an idea how rich this field is) and if the expectation is that culture will be a major variable determining change acceptance, then these are a good option.

In the course of the project there are other tactical tools that can be deployed to generate valuable insights into the prevailing culture:

Well-directed questions in stakeholder interviews such as: What do you see as the main benefit of the project? What do you see as the likely area of resistance to the change?  What is the best way to communicate with?

Change history analysis: Talking to those who were involved in recent change projects about their learnings is a great starting point for understanding the landscape that you are moving into and sidestepping some avoidable mistakes.

2.       How can we assess which cultural influences are dominant for our key audiences?

The steps outlined above will at least give a first view of which cultures are in play (E.g. National, Ethnic, Business sector, Business function, Location or Job role)

Determining which carry most weight depends on scope of the project, the approach to deployments and the way that the key audiences are segmented, especially for communication and engagement purposes.  For example if deployment is driven by location, it might be expected that local norms will predominate whereas reaction to a functional change will be more profoundly driven by the functional culture.

3.       How can we take account of culture without falling foul of stereotyping?

The great pratfalls of any assessment of culture is to forget that in the end, whatever useful generalisations help shape our change approach, we can only succeed if we remember that we are engaging with unique individuals and that ultimately our approach must address individual impacts. If we fail to do this, we risk tipping from useful generalisation into unhelpful stereotyping.

The distinction is well captured by Geri-Ann Galanti in "An Introduction to Cultural Differences" (Western Journal of Medicine, v172(5), 2000)

"A stereotype is an ending point, and no effort is then made to ascertain whether it is appropriate to apply it to the person in question. A generalization, on the other hand, serves as a starting point, recognising common trends within a group, but with the recognition that further information is needed to ascertain whether the generalization applies to a particular person. Therefore, it is just a beginning. Because differences always exist between individuals, stemming from a variety of factors, even generalizations may be inaccurate when applied to specific persons."

When we start to make assumptions about how an individual will respond based on their perceived culture rather than using it as a starting point for enquiry, then we have crossed the line into stereotyping and it's time to re-evaluate the approach!

4.       Which elements of our change approach can we flex to take account of the prevailing culture?

The obvious candidates are stakeholder engagement and project communications. This can be as subtle as ensuring that the language is consistent with the lexicon of the business e.g. are employees called employees, users or are they 'partners'. It can also be reflected in the choice of communication channel e.g. in a highly hierarchic business, cascade communication would be more effective than the more individual approach that would be suited to more egalitarian environments.

Perhaps less obviously, training is also an area that should be approached in the context of cultural expectations. While any major programme will look to standardise the training approach for economy of scale- and quality assurance purposes, allowing some flexibility in localisation of materials and their delivery can pay back handsomely in both the level of buy-in and the outcomes achieved.

What are our options when the "culture" is fundamentally resistant to change?

When it is the culture that has to change, this can only be a top down process. Expectations need to be set, positive behaviours role modelled and accountability for behavioural change established from the executive levels of the business. Creating commitment to this approach is a change leadership challenge that should be addressed through stakeholder engagement from the outset. This is the aspect of any change that takes the longest and so needs to both start early and be accounted for in the ongoing change embedment plans that may well extend beyond the immediate lifecycle of the project (and so need to be fully owned by the line management of the business at every level).

It can be helpful to think of culture as the landscape that the change manager has to navigate to land the change. By paying attention to the challenges outlined above, it will help to build a cultural map of the organisation that locates the key features as well as the potential hazards. With this in hand, the project can plot the best course and even more importantly build the roads, bridges and tunnels that will make the destination more accessible.

Many thanks to both Karen Mitchell and Mike Jeacock for their thoughtful contributions on this topic on the BIE "Leaders in Transformation" LinkedIn Group. If you have experience of managing change across cultures – or of changing culture, I would love to hear from you.

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