I had the pleasure of delivering a webinar on Culture Change to over 2,500 members of the Project Management Institute. You can access the recording by clicking here. I received several excellent questions, and for your convenience I’ve included the answers below.

Q: Should rewards just be monetary? if not, what others do you suggest?

A: Rewards can be monetary, but there are other ways to provide recognition. Many times, organizations set up contests for prizes or points, or they will simply recognize the culture change champion. This is similar to sales organizations offering sales recognition programs when they are trying to drive sales. Ask yourself, what are the ways that you can recognize people? Are they practicing a cultural tenant as a leader? Have they been doing a great job providing experiences? Think beyond monetary and think of good old-fashioned recognition techniques and tactics.

Q: What are some key indicators of a company’s culture?

A: Some of the indicators you will see include employees talking about the culture. Look at how they dress and how they interact with each other. Have you ever walked into a room and could feel it? You can sense whether people have their heads down or if they are talking. Paying attention to their words and actions and seeing their behavior are good signals that can tell you more about the organization’s culture.

Q: Three levels of cultural changes relate to internal factors. What about cultural change driven by external factors such as disruptive technologies, competitive forces, etc. How do those affect culture change?

A: To clarify, the first principle in effectively driving culture change, is it should happen at three levels – organizational, individual, and team. What you are talking about are disruptive technology or changes in the external environment. In a lot of the work that we do, we find organizations are shifting their strategy, or they will look to change their culture as a result of external demands or new trends. We find the external environment plays a key role in cultural transformation and organizations may wish to revisit the way they work in support of or in contrast to the culture they have created.

Q: Does organizational culture remain constant and subject to slow change? Or, in an agile world, is culture more dynamic?

A: Cultural adoption can be slow or it can be fast depending on where an organization is and how quick they decide to move. When an organization is starting to roll out a culture change initiative or define its culture, agile individuals are often more open to embracing changes just by their very nature. Change agility and being agile allows people to utilize balance, speed, and flexibility. They are nimbler and embrace change more readily.

Q: In a remote organization, how can you assess the individual attitudes and cultures when there is limited personal contact?

A: It can be challenging to assess cultural attributes remotely, however, you can still listen to what people are talking about, how they are speaking, words they are using, tone of voice, etc. We have worked with organizations to drive change remotely. For example, it is often helpful if you are hosting a webinar to have cameras set up so people can see each other. It takes more work to ensure that the implementation cascade allows people to truly understand what’s desired, and as a leader, you should probe for where people are in terms of their cultural acceptance. And while you can do that over the phone or over Webex, it is always preferable to meet face to face.

Q: When we don’t get support from the executive level, what would be the next step for cultural change?

A: Ideally, it is great when you can start cultural transformation from the top. Leaders and executives cast the biggest shadow. When you cannot get that level of support or endorsement, you may be able to work at the mid-level in the organization. If you cannot get executive support, ask yourself if there are other leaders that you can coalesce to see if they will endorse the transformation and can commit to the necessary work? If the answer is no, ask if this is something that can be championed and shepherded? Organizations can shift and change from a bottom-up approach, but it is more difficult to so. You usually need to find a leader or two who will work with you.

Q: How can we as project managers and team members help drive change, particularly for change averse teams? How can we provide the necessary experiences, even if only a book reference?

A: If you have an organization that is change averse, I might start first by helping them understand what change is. I would work to better understand some of their core beliefs that may be driving their aversion. You can provide some book references on the importance of culture and the importance of change. If you are getting resistance early, I would further probe the resistance to uncover what it really is and why it is there and see how you might be able to work through it. There are podcasts and books on driving cultural change and how change-averse people can be turned on a dime.

Q: How much time should be allocated to executing an effective change program, as you described?

A: When you are looking to roll out a change program to teams, if you have done the upfront work correctly, it can be done in four to six weeks, although sometimes it can take a few months to get leaders on board, committed to the change tenants, workshop those changes, and create the proper experiences. However, when it comes time to roll out, we usually like to say that a half day meeting for leaders with their teams, focusing on the culture change, what it means, and how it connects to the work is usually a good rule of thumb. When you need to roll out remotely, sometimes you can pulse the change program out over a couple of weeks with a couple of conference calls, but the target is usually a half a day.

Q: How would one determine if pushing for cultural change in an uphill battle situation is worth the effort?

A: That is an interesting question. The culture that exists impacts the organization’s realization of its strategy, its business goals, and other outcomes. When the culture is such that it’s unhealthy, I say go for it, because the organization’s viability and success depend on changing the way people work and their beliefs. How you approach the cultural change must be handled carefully. Unhealthy cultures tend to have leaders that may not be the best. I always look to find my first champion as high up in the organization as possible. That is the best first option. Then, educating this leader and bringing them onboard. We know 65 percent of mergers fail due to a lack of adequate attention to human capital and culture. There is a saying, “culture eats strategy all day long.” Culture matters. It impacts the way people work and how effective they are.

Q: Should there be a dedicated team to oversee the change effort? Or is it okay for it to be an additional set of responsibilities?

A: It depends on the organization and how big it is. Change and transformation take time. If you are serious about large-scale change or the culture change initiative, you really need a dedicated person to lead the effort. There are just too many moving parts, particularly if you are including a cascade, and/or communications. If you are going to add change responsibility to somebody’s plate, pull other things off because it usually takes a mini village to affect large-scale change.

Q: What would your suggestion be if organizational leadership is committed to cultural transformation and change, but is not willing to commit the resources or people’s time?

A: If an organization is not willing to commit the time and the resources, then they are not committed. Any kind of large-scale change effort takes time and money. It does not require a large sum of money, but it will take time and time is money. If you are really serious about driving large-scale change, you have to make sure there is an organizational commitment. If not, I would spend time looking to secure commitment first. Without time, focus and energy, you may be starting something which will fail miserably and wind up in worse shape than before. I am sure many of you can recall a time when an organization has conducted a climate or culture survey, and once they get the results, they put them in a drawer. They have raised expectations, yet they are not willing to change anything. Therefore, I think the first step in this type of initiative is securing senior level commitment for time and resources.

Q: Do you have any figures about the percentage of failed projects because of poor or lack of cultural change management?

A: A couple of facts. Up to 70 percent of large-scale change initiatives fail and they fail for two reasons. One, a lack of an implementation cascade, and two, leaders are not equipped to lead through change. When we look at culture specifically, we know that culture impacts strategy fairly significantly. We know in the world of mergers and acquisitions that 65 percent of the failures are due to cultural and human capital issues. Culture really matters, and when you start to monetize what that looks like, it is pretty big. Organizations need to pay attention to the culture they have created.

Q: How do you manage a change that is not from top down into the organization? Most of all, if it is something that is not a knowledge domain of the sponsors?

A: If I am understanding that question correctly, what I think you are asking is how do you affect change when you do not have commitment at the top? It is really important to find senior leadership that is committed. I would ask the question, “Why are we starting a large-scale culture change initiative if we do not have leadership or executive sponsorship?” Culture change is about governing how people think, behave, and act, as well as what the organizational norms are. We all know the saying, “It starts at the top.” You are going to have a lot of difficulty being successful if your leaders are not on board. Make sure you secure the appropriate senior level support. Ensure you have thought through your organizational cascade and ensure that the change initiative is fully endorsed and funded. Make sure you have all your leaders on the same page and that they are fully aligned. Pre-planning can be the difference between success and failure.

Q: How would you see cultural change being implemented when so much of the workforce these days is more virtual than office based?

A: Even if your workforce is remote, your organization still has some type of culture. It has a set of beliefs which govern the way people work. It is helpful to ensure that the cultural cascade and the way in which you engage others can be done in a dedicated session. You can host a Webex. You can share information and one of the benefits of having a fairly defined culture for a remote workforce is that it helps them stay connected to the organization and how the organization feels, thinks, and behaves.

Q: You refer to failed mergers and acquisitions. Are you defining failure in these situations on the cultural level only or referencing the ultimate breakdown of the deal?

A: I am talking about the breakdown of the deal. When you look historically at organizations that have gone through a merger and you look at failures, failure has everything to do with a lack of cultural fit and human capital issues. And when you look at why mergers fail, it is about failing to achieve strategy and vision, and culture is frequently at the center.

Q: Do you think culture is more important these days than in years past?

A: The trends that I am seeing confirm this is true. People tend to be more mobile from organization to organization, and frequently if they do not like the organization’s culture, they leave. We do a lot of work on talent retention, and culture is a key organizational factor that causes people to stay or leave. Organizations that are looking to engage their workforce and get the results, pay attention to culture, and make sure their culture is healthy and clearly articulated.

Q: How can we address change fatigue if an organization has been in continual transformation for several years?

A: Delicately. It is important that organizations help their employees become more agile, and they should have a methodology for guiding organizations through change because change is continuous. We see this fatigue factor frequently within organizations. People are exhausted, and I think it is about building the individual and organizational capacity to manage change. Organizational and individual agility are also important.

Q: Is there a natural limit for cultural changes or theoretically, can every company change from any culture to any other in a given time?

A: Theoretically, it is possible, but practically, it is not. Organizational cultures are deeply rooted in the work practices of an organization. So, transformation is absolutely possible, especially if you follow best practices. You cannot take an organization that works one way and fundamentally shift it without a lot of hard work. Your best opportunities for true cultural change are when you have other triggering events – such as, merger, acquisition, spin off, or new leadership. Those moments happen when organizations are more apt and open to some type of change, and that is when transformation can be most impactful.

Wendy L. Heckelman, Ph.D.

Dr. Wendy Heckelman, president and founder of WLH Consulting, Inc. has over 30 years of experience working with Fortune 100 industry clients. These include pharmaceutical, biotech, health care, animal health medicines, and consumer products, as well as international non-profit organizations and growing entrepreneurial companies.

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