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5 Tips for Building a Sustainable Culture Change

By: Tom Cantwell

One of the most daunting, complex, and beneficial changes an organization goes through is culture transformation.  In many engagements at SEI, we help our clients work through some level of change which can vary based on client need.  For example, incremental product releases may only need efficient online training modules to satisfy knowledge requirements, whereas large-scale implementations of brand new technology may necessitate more rigorous change management using a defined methodology.  Whether you are looking to build a process improvement culture, transform to an agile framework, or create the next great customer experience, these five practices can be used as a starting point for designing a system to sustain culture change.

Communicate a Clear Reason Why Change is Necessary

Change can be hard and uncomfortable.  To get a successful change management initiative mobilized, employees need a compelling reason to break out of the practices and mindsets that they are used to.  The reason for change can be inspiring for a number of reasons: change might be needed to survive a disruption in technology, to take advantage of a lucrative customer opportunity, to improve job satisfaction, or to make a meaningful positive impact in the community.  The key here is that the reason for change should resonate with what each employee values and be communicated frequently over a number of mediums.  Doing so improves buy-in and gives leaders a North Star to align with when making decisions.  For example, in managing a Salesforce implementation that was not widely welcomed, we created a Stakeholder Engagement matrix to better understand concerns so they could be addressed proactively with those resources by giving specifics on the benefits of the change.

Start Small and Scale Incrementally

Begin with a high-performing team of no more than 10-15 employees and spend time optimizing your change within that group.  For example, if you’re looking to create a culture of continuous improvement, then work with your initial team until everyone is clicking on all cylinders and making improvements to eliminate waste and make updates to deployment methods (training, procedures, controls, etc.).  Only then do you incorporate a second group and attempt to replicate this result.  Repeat this process until you feel confident in your team’s ability to consistently deliver high quality tools, training and management systems in each group.  From there, you can scale with speed and confidence.  While many leaders with ‘Type A’ personalities are successful in their ability to push progress and accelerate timelines, be mindful of preparing them for the need to support incremental success.  Without such outward support from leadership, change initiatives can get misdirected or lost.

Design for Short-Term and Long-Term Results

Most change initiatives come with two types of pressures: employees and front-line managers are skeptical the change will stick and senior executives are anxious to see the results of their investment in change.  Fortunately, both of these pressures can be alleviated with a common solution that we employ regularly at SEI: early and frequent progress towards business targets.  Showing early and frequent progress will help convert late adopters of change and inspire confidence with executives that your change process is working.

Use Positive Reinforcement…Publically

One of the easiest methods we’ve seen in engagements at SEI to gain momentum in a culture change is to identify people exhibiting the behaviors you want to see and make a big deal about recognizing them.  It’s in our nature to exhibit behavior that is well received – seeing an example praised by key leadership reinforces the organization’s commitment to change and gives employees a concrete example of what ‘good’ looks like.  For instance, one of our clients with a heavy waterfall methodology is well underway in an agile transformation.  During a sprint retrospective, some of the developers on the team started pulling their own work with the feature priorities in mind.  The scrum master gave a huge shout out to the developers illustrating how their initiative benefits the goal of delivering working software.  The attitude quickly spread throughout the rest of the team.

Realign Performance Management Systems

With most change initiatives, there is an end goal in mind with financial incentive for the organization.  To effectively sustain culture change, this financial incentive needs to be aligned throughout the organization.  In some organizations, this can be complicated where there is not a clear tie to the front-lines.  As part of a recent analytics project that SEI was involved in, the team uncovered significant data quality issues stemming from inconsistent business processes.  To help improve the value of the data moving forward, the business partners started including performance metrics pertaining to improving or sustaining data quality with specific measured objectives.

Culture change brings a unique set of management and leadership challenges.  Sustaining change is not achieved through a one-time exercise, but instead through the adoption of new management practices that need to be continuously nurtured and reinforced.  Creating a sustainable culture change provides the foundation for organizations to improve, transform, and compete.  These five best practices can be considered a common denominator for success!

Tom Cantwell

Consultant

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