Frameworks don’t work if they feel too heavy to lift off the ground.

My dad was an engineer-a very smart man who was good at what he did.  As a kid, every so often I would get curious and ask him to tell me about his job.  His face would light up as he started to share how power plants worked.  Generally, within about thirty seconds, this involved either the word “turbine” or “centrifuge”.  My ten-year-old eyes would glaze over as my mind gradually made the journey from curious, to following along, to struggling to look interested, to wishing I had never asked.

Sometimes I feel that way when I look at the advice available about organizational change and culture.

One Ivy League Executive Education website shares five action steps to driving cultural change:

“Quantitatively measure your current values” is followed by “Intentionally align culture, strategy, and structure”, followed by…I don’t know.  It must have involved the word “centrifuge” because I zoned out for a minute there.

Changing organizational culture can be daunting, with no shortage of models and frameworks available to employ.  

But, when it comes to changing organizational culture, linking theory and practice may not be enough. That’s because culture lives in the space we breathe.  It is not just our workflows and policies.  It is about attitude, mindset, and every interaction.   

And so, while there is a place for models and frameworks when it comes to changing culture, we need to complement these with something simpler.  In my experience and observation both as an HR leader and a leadership coach, I have found that organic, iterative efforts pay off in spades compared to fancy change programs alone.

After all, it’s no use having the Cadillac of culture change programs if it sits in the driveway because it’s too hard to steer.

Compliment your theoretical frameworks with lighter-touch questions.

What if, instead of heavy theoretical models, you could change your culture through conversation? Below, I offer five questions that have helped my executive clients move incrementally and-do I dare say it?-even kind of easily, in the direction of the culture they desire for their organization.  

These questions can be plopped into any management or team discussion at any time.  You do not need to have an elegant change program in place before they start to make sense or are useful.  This is important with change because one rarely has the gift of orchestrating change from ground zero. Because change is fluid and iterative, even leaders in charge of planning it find they are “fixing the airplane while it’s flying”, to some extent.

Five Questions To Drive Culture Change, Bit By Bit

  1. How does this decision, change, or action bring us closer to who we are becoming as an organization?  Even if you aren’t sure “who you are becoming”, that tends to become evident as people contemplate the impact of the change in question.  The focus on who you are becoming also helps frame change in a positive, optimistic, and purposeful direction.  Or, it can also help you realize that the idea in question does not, in fact, help us on our way to who we are becoming.  And that’s useful information too.  
  2. How does this decision, change, or action help us let go of what we are leaving behind?  This question offers similar benefits to the one above, with the inverse.  We don’t give ourselves permission often enough to let go of aspects of our organizational identity that aren’t useful.  It can be cathartic to realize that a particular decision is helping to let go of something that has been bugging the whole group for a while.  
  3. Is it acceptable (or sustainable) that we continue to do x,y, and z?  A good question to ask when the status quo creates a high toll for a customer, employees, or some other group or individual that is revered in the organization.
  4. What is the risk of not changing?  Or put another way, if, in six months, we are in the same spot, how will we feel about that?  This helps people see the benefit of change for themselves, by encouraging them to remember that not changing also has its impacts, and staying in your comfort zone isn’t always as attractive in the long run as it may feel today.  
  5. What have we learned from the past that will help us succeed this time? This question is especially useful when faced with challenges that something has been tried in the past and has failed.  Or that it is not worth trying to change again because a problem is intractable.  

Don’t give up your culture change efforts because the models and frameworks are daunting.

The beauty of these questions is that you don’t need to have a 30-page slide deck articulating your vision, values, and strategic priorities for them to be useful. The simple act of asking these questions uncovers your vision, priorities, and values.  They allow for an organic and iterative development of these, while also helping to get beyond the status quo.  And you and your organization deserve to keep evolving and growing. Stick with small, manageable moves that lead to that evolution and growth.