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Culture change is broken. Here's how to fix it

"It’s time to think differently about culture," argues Brandpie's manager partner for employee experience

Is there a better way to deliver cultural change? According to research by McKinsey, 70% of culture change programmes fail.

It’s a systemic problem and most people have a horror story or two, whether that’s trying and failing to get change programmes off the ground or running one and failing to see the desired results.

Put simply, the vast majority of change programmes fail for three reasons: they’re overwhelming in size with broad, intangible goals;  there are too many stakeholders involved, making for a cumbersome, slow-moving process; and they often become they become trapped in the communications bucket, which doesn’t drive the desired behaviour.

Embracing perpetual innovation

But what if we took a different approach? Perpetual innovation is the beating heart of any successful organisation, driving powerful change in everything from product development to sustainability, supply chain and logistics to marketing and customer experience. And yet many businesses are yet to think about culture through an innovation lens.

Culture is not a static thing, it’s constantly growing and evolving. By embracing consistent change we have the potential to shape it over time.  

Read more: Measuring change programmes' effectiveness

In practice, this means doing away with expensive, lengthy transformation programmes with a vague goal of ‘changing culture’, and instead focusing on innovating, working together to tackle specific cultural challenges with experimentation and a sprint-based, impact-driven approach.

A three-step process

Step one is to identify the fires and opportunity areas. What are the biggest challenges your business faces? They’re all readily identifiable people challenges, like ‘Why aren’t we generating fresh ideas to stay ahead?’ or ‘Why is there so much pushback to new initiatives?’. Then, once you have the issue, identify a pilot group or business area to focus on.

Step two is to quickly gain more insight on these challenges from your team, including their ideas for solutions. Once you’ve done this, you can introduce pilot schemes: creative, innovative ideas that can be tested in a small environment then scaled if successful.

For example, faced with the challenge to stimulate more effective, focused meetings for one client, we introduced ‘Room 15’, a meeting room where the lights went out after 15 minutes with no explanation. Word and intrigue quickly spread despite no official ‘launch’, and more people began to use the room, driving instant behaviour change.

Read more: The future looks squiggly

Step three is to expand. Track how these pilots are performing; are they having the impact you hoped for? If not, what did you learn, and how can you reapply that knowledge next time? Prioritise which interventions to scale and broaden across a wider group of people.

Short, sharp interventions

We’re conditioned to think of culture change as a slow, expensive and often time-consuming process but these pilot schemes can be introduced almost immediately, and the results seen just as quickly.

Take AstraZeneca, a global pharmaceutical firm pushing the boundaries of science. Like any other large, complex business, AstraZeneca wanted to empower its employees to focus on what mattered to allow them to deliver on its central vision.

After listening to the team’s specific pain points, we introduced three simple interventions:

  • A limit was placed on the number of people copied into each email, vastly reducing the volume of messages each employee received.
  • The meeting room booking system was updated to encourage shorter, more efficient meetings.
  • Practical presentation training was provided, giving employees the skills to present new ideas and initiatives with clarity and conviction.

We also knew we needed something big, to capture the team’s attention, and introduced a challenge to collectively save a million hours. Overall, AstraZeneca unlocked a staggering 2 million hours that could be repurposed on what really mattered – and improved 4 million more patient lives. The challenge ignited the entire organisation, inspiring them to explore over 700 additional programmes.

Read more: Using staff networks to drive change

In a new era for business, it’s time to think differently about culture. We need to abandon archaic programmes that fail to deliver results. There’s a better way. It’s more innovative, experimental and faster – and it works.

By Chris Holmes, managing partner, employee experience, Brandpie