Lasting culture change is possible in organizations that have lost their way if they focus on current successes and start small. This is the message of an HBR article by by Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley titled, Cultural Change That Sticks: Start With What’s Already Working. They write:
It’s tempting to dwell on the negative traits of your culture, but any corporate culture is a product of good intentions that evolved in unexpected ways and will have many strengths. They might include a deep commitment to customer service (which could manifest itself as a reluctance to cut costs) or a predisposition toward innovation (which sometimes leads to “not invented here” syndrome). If you can find ways to demonstrate the relevance of the original values and share stories that illustrate why people believe in them, they can still serve your company well. Acknowledging the existing culture’s assets will also make major change feel less like a top-down imposition and more like a shared evolution.
I’ve written before about the reasons why it is better to focus on success than failure. Organizations like JPMorgan Chase, Penn State University, and the U.S. Congress, were founded on the basis of a strong sense of ethics and commitment to their customers. Somewhere along the way, they lost their moral compass but they still have departments and individuals who are committed to doing the right thing every day.
That’s where the learning starts. Find those examples of exemplary behavior, people and practices that are aligned with the aspirational values of the organization, and help others learn from them. This is likely to gain greater acceptance from the wider organization than hearing a directive from on high. This is especially true in power-diffused organizations, such as hospitals and universities, where passive-aggressive behavior will block any mandated culture change, especially without input from those who will be affected most by doing things differently. All of us do best when we feel like we have a say in our own change.
And don’t try to change everything at once. Ford Motor Company started to become a more open and trusting environment when the CEO encouraged honesty in his management meetings. Invest your energy in pockets of success that will spread throughout the organization. As co-workers see what is possible and how the change will make their lives better in the long run, they will begin to support a different culture.