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Icebergs, Cruise Ships and Changing your Organization’s Culture

Updated: May 9, 2023

What do icebergs, mega cruise ships and organizational culture all have in common? At first glance, not a lot. But, as soon as you try to change their direction, then you see how slow and cumbersome the whole process is.

Back in 2017, an Emirati business man started to plan how to move an iceberg from Antarctica to the UAE – and the project still remains in the planning stage. Getting one of today’s mega cruise ships to make a turning maneuver, for example, to successfully dock, takes skill, planning and significant time and patience.

The same applies to culture change. In fact, the bigger and older the organization, the harder it is to change. Harder, but fortunately not impossible. At the moment many well-known organizations are making headlines because they need to change their culture, or because they are in the process of trying to do so. In Canada, Lt-General Frances Allen, the military’s first woman to hold the position of second-in-command, has been given the key priority of changing the culture in the armed forces. There are loud calls in the Canadian press for Hockey Canada to change its culture. Internationally, the World-renowned Metropolitan Police force in London has been found to have a toxic organizational culture in dire need of changing. And in 2002, a toxic culture that allowed fraud on a grand scale brought down the American Worldcom organization.

Culture change is often in the news because so many organizations, even successful ones, have projects ranging from slightly modifying their culture to rebuilding it from the bottom up. And yet culture change is often a poorly understood process and it very frequently fails. Indeed, one Harvard study found that 70% of culture change projects failed either partially or fully. My colleagues I worked with at Bombardier, told me that it took at least 7 years to make long-lasting culture change after Bombardier’s acquisition of Canadair, an aircraft manufacturer. And Paul Tellier, ex-CEO of Canadian National, said that the culture change he started when he arrived at the helm of the organization in 1992 was not completely finished when he exited in 2002. Why? And is there a successful approach to changing the culture of an organization?

For the “Why” question, much has to do with the fact that we live in a society that is used to rapid or instant results. Too often, we expect an organization’s culture to start changing as soon as we initiate the process. Another element has to do with something summed up by Bill Gates when he said: “The problem with success is that it blinds us to the need to change”. Very often, people within an organization will say that the company is doing well, so why change it. That is like saying that the Titanic was sailing perfectly well and therefore it didn’t need to change course.

For culture change to succeed it has to follow a simple (but not easy) five-step process:

1. Initial key questions

  • Why do we want to do this?

  • What do we want to achieve?

  • Do we have the persistence for a multi-year process?

2. Set up a communications plan

  • Communicate to employees early and then throughout the culture change process.

  • Quickly communicate successes

  • Don’t hesitate to communicate inevitable missteps and also the lessons learned

3. Survey your current culture

  • Don’t use superficial-level surveys such as engagement or satisfaction surveys. They merely measure symptoms, not deep-level causes.

  • Survey your employees for their perception of both the current culture and the ideal culture they envisage for the organization. We use the Organizational Culture Inventory™ (OCI) from Human Synergistics® because it uncovers both deep-rooted causes and reveals the positive and negative outcomes these causes generate.

4. Decide on key culture change actions

  • Ensure you have actions with long- medium and short-term deliverables.

  • The long-term and medium-term actions will greatly improve your chances of achieving durable change.

  • The short-term actions (we often call them “Low-hanging fruit”) are important because they demonstrate to employees that their opinions are quickly resulting in visible actions.

5. Ongoing adjustments and feedback

  • Once the culture change actions are decided on and beginning to be implemented, regularly communicate them to all employees, monitor and adjust the plans and actions as you monitor their degree of success.

  • Resurvey your culture for progress at 12- to 24-month intervals

  • Be ready to manage inevitable resistance to change.

Remember, this is an iterative process. As your culture change project progresses, lessons will be learned and you will feed changes back into your overall plan. Just ensure that you are still focused on the long-term objectives you set up in step one.

Want to know more about our leadership programs and profiles?

· Individual Leadership (360° profiles, training, coaching)

· Team leadership (Survival simulations, case studies, etc.)

· Organizational leadership (culture surveys, engagement surveys, satisfaction surveys, etc.)


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