How wonderful would it be if there were a 1x1 for culture change?! We define beautiful values, conduct a few workshops on "Modern Leadership" or "Agile Working Methods," and remove a few levels of hierarchy here and there. All of this ideally within a short timeframe and with minimal resource investment. Then we just check off the task: culture change completed. In this article, we discuss why culture change is not a project with a clear end date, why such an assumption can only lead to collective frustration, and what actually constitutes a successful culture change.
Cultural change has no classic end of the project
Simply put, HR projects often have a preparation phase, pilot phase, implementation phase, and if you're good, an evaluation phase, and a project closure. Sometimes, a fixed start date cannot be determined, but that rarely bothers anyone. However, what always needs to be recorded is the end of the project: a clearly defined timeframe with a limited resource investment and a final presentation for the board.
This template is often seen in consulting offers - and of course, the consultants should eventually leave. However, the goal should always be for the organization to continue developing independently and not stumble from one consulting assignment to another.
The topic of "cultural change" cannot simply be declared as finished. Cultural change is a continuous process that must be thought of in the long term and sustainably. Culture is not a rigid concept that can be bought. Organizational culture is influenced from within and outside and must be able to adapt - whether it is due to global developments, industry and sector-specific changes, or even micro-political influences. A completed end state of organizational culture is therefore utopian.
However, this does not mean that clear goals are not set. Goals provide orientation and make progress measurable. In the context of cultural change, goals can be achieved without declaring the project as finished. The achievement of goals or visions may even seem easier than continuously living and experiencing them in everyday work.
Culture change is not a one-dimensional project
Culture change is not a one-dimensional project. Values, leadership understanding, competency profiles, team dynamics, and even structural aspects are all parts of it and must be considered together. It is not about slapping a slogan on the wall and making a few superficial changes, hoping to live a modern culture in the organization. To achieve sustainable change, all aspects must be taken into account. You can't just talk about values and expect everything to automatically change. Leadership understanding also needs to be examined and adjusted to ensure it aligns with the new values. The organization's structure must be included in the culture change. This means that the hierarchy and processes are designed to support the new values and leadership understanding. And finally, employees must have the necessary skills to be successful in the new culture. A holistic approach is therefore crucial. A lived culture permeates the entire company.
Culture change cannot be imposed
A culture change cannot simply be prescribed from the top, but requires the participation of all levels, especially the employees. Every transformation project must be considered across different organizational levels in order to understand, involve, and identify potential risks early on, and if necessary, adjust the process or goals.
Leaders as role models
Leadership plays a crucial role in cultural transformation. Employees look up to their superiors and use their behavior as a benchmark. Their will and authenticity shape the enthusiasm of employees to follow their example. However, we do not mean transferring responsibility to team leaders or middle management, but rather anchoring the cultural change in top management. The top management can emphasize the importance of cultural transformation by explaining the "why" and creating a collective buy-in. Here, we mean less the conveyance of urgency (see "Sense of Urgency" by Kotter, 1996), but rather the emotionalization of the organization for change (see Walker & Soule, 2017). Seeing and experiencing the cultural transformation being lived out at the top level is truly motivating. After all, the corporate culture is shaped by the actions and attitudes of all involved.
Status-quo as a measurable starting point
To change or shape culture, one must know where the organization stands and what the current culture is. Therefore, it is necessary to initially capture the employees' and leaders' lived experiences in order to adequately depict the current state. Surveys are often conducted, but the evaluation takes too long and the results lack follow-up actions. It is important, therefore, for leaders to be actively involved as drivers of cultural change and to work together with their teams to develop concrete measures. Based on these findings, milestones can be derived to achieve the desired state. These can then be evaluated through regular monitoring, enabling the depiction of ad hoc progress, identification of emerging risks, immediate response, and adjustments.
Continuous monitoring and adaptation
Continuous monitoring of cultural change enables obtaining a current view of changes in corporate culture at any time. It is important not only to consider the results of surveys but also to observe the behavior and attitudes of employees in their daily lives. Leaders should engage in regular feedback conversations and be open to suggestions and improvement proposals.
It is crucial to continuously adjust the cultural change to meet the actual needs and developments within the company. Through regular evaluations, weaknesses, deviations in change, and the need for action can be identified to initiate targeted measures for further improvement of corporate culture.
Honest communication and transparency
Open and transparent communication is essential for a successful cultural transformation. Employees need to feel that they are part of the change and that even if nothing is happening in their area right now, the process is still alive and progressing. This can only be achieved through consistent and clear messaging. Diversity of voices is crucial here as well, whether it's the project team, influencers, top management, or individual teams and employees.
In all of these aspects, it should not end with a specific deadline. How can a company continue to evolve if it does not regularly listen and look inward? The transformation process aims to establish a sustainable change mindset with the appropriate tools that allow the organization and its culture to remain future-proof.
Cultural change requires patience and perseverance
Sounds challenging? It is. Cultural change is a long-term process that demands patience and endurance. Often, in the context of cultural change and other transformation processes, the comparison to a marathon is made. However, unlike a marathon, cultural change consists of multiple sprints. It is crucial for companies to conduct regular interim evaluations to measure progress and make necessary adjustments. This process is used to build structures and capabilities and to evolve sustainably without the need to initiate a new initiative repeatedly at great expense.
Culture change is a complex process that cannot happen overnight. It is not about making superficial changes that would simply collapse like a house of cards once the project is completed. The only sustainable outcome would be the exhaustion and frustration of the employees who have committed themselves to the change. It requires genuine commitment, honest communication, cross-level readiness for change, real-time monitoring, and a great deal of patience. This cannot be achieved with template solutions. A data-driven individualization of the process creates clarity, measurability, adaptability, and scalability beyond a traditional project end.
Kotter, J.P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Walker, B. & Soule, S.A. (2017). Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate. unter https://hbr.org/2017/06/changing-company-culture-requires-a-movement-not-a-mandate