Changing Cultures Through Conversations

April 26th, 2023 by Douglas McEncroe · No Comments · Organizational Culture

Shutterstock_2139184783My clients often ask me; how do we change our culture? The main reason for this is that with a new strategy coming in, some things become less important while others actually get in the way of the strategy being implemented.

One of the difficulties of adapting an organisational culture is that most people aren’t actually conscious of it. Much like national cultures, people behave in certain ways because they share a common way of interpreting the world and their place in it. You only see your national culture for the first once you go and live in a different culture, learn the language and then start to see the world from another angle. When you return to your own country you see a whole lot of things you never saw before. Changing an organisational culture therefore requires helping the employees see their present culture and clearly understand the assumptions that underly it.

Making the new strategy understandable

A common problem that I have come across in a lot of organisations is that the senior management team has a clear understanding of what their new strategy is but if you go down two levels of management, the people have no idea of what it is. Too often the strategy is expressed in terms suitable to a McKinsey consultant but is completely incomprehensible to an average manager. The first step then is to describe the strategy in ways that the average person can understand and also, point out how it is different to the previous strategy and why it had to be changed.

Bring the people together

To adapt a culture, it is desirable to bring large groups of people together and help them become more conscious of:

  • What the new strategy is.
  • What the present culture is.
  • What should the new culture look like.

These peoples’ role in this should not be passive but rather they should work as active participants in shaping the new culture. A great methodology for this is the World Café that can be employed in meetings of 200 people yet organises them in tables of four so that people are involved in intimate conversations in which they feel free to open up. The key to these conversations are:

  • Rotating the people so that they change tables at the end of each round
  • Having clear concrete questions that they can talk about
  • Harvesting the contributions of each table so that the whole group can arrive at tangible and clear actions to be taken

I carried out some wonderful World Cafés back in Spain both for government and private organisations and achieved great results.

It surprises me that more companies don’t employ these types of actions as it can be done quickly and economically. And yet, you can arrive at achieving a critical mass of employees who understand what the strategy means to them, what the present culture is, how it needs to change and what are the behaviours that need to be adopted.

There is a collective wisdom that companies can tap into. Employees have so much knowledge and great ideas if only they were asked to participate. This is one way of converting them into active contributors in the change you are looking for.


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