Everybody loves instant gratification including business leaders. However, instant gratification is a rare treat and the pursuit of instant gratification often creates more pain than patiently waiting for results over time.

Companies are rightly applying a more critical eye to their corporate cultures and look to intervene in positive ways to promote strong, mutually-beneficial cultures. Unfortunately, many companies look for cultures to improve overnight and seek quick fixes delivering immediate, large-scale impacts. These aggressive efforts, despite being well-intentioned pursuits of noble objectives, regularly fail to produce the desired impact and often add to the problem rather than addressing it.

Achieving a healthy corporate culture is analogous to a maintaining a healthy weight. It is easier to maintain a healthy weight than to initially reach your target weight. And worse, it is easiest to move away from your target weight. Establishing an unhealthy culture, like gaining weight, takes time, but happens unintentionally so that time often goes unnoticed. Moving from unhealthy culture to healthy culture, like losing weight, also takes time, but time that feels more significant than moving in the other direction because it requires conscious intention.

Just as a person with the ambition to lose 25 pounds should not expect to see the scale shift dramatically after only one week, companies cannot expect cultural change to happen quickly. Just as the move from unhealthy to healthy foods would likely backfire if the portion size was doubled for the healthy food, too much effort to “fix” culture quickly can cause efforts to improve culture to backfire.

Whether trying to lose weight or improve culture, setting and achieving many small incremental objectives that aggregate to a substantial goal has been proven more effective than trying to quickly achieve a substantial objective with a single miraculously impactful effort.

Without intentional design, culture evolves unpredictably

Companies cannot avoid having a culture. Like a personality, even the absence of a distinct culture is itself a demarcation of culture. A person cannot entirely lack personality and a company cannot entirely lack culture, but either has the power to design and cultivate a culture/personality of their choosing.

Before companies embark on a journey to mimic the cultural trends of the day in pursuit of cultural excellence, they must first thoroughly understand their innate cultural elements. Enhancing existing, natural strengths is generally easier than introducing new elements or changing entrenched behaviors. Furthermore, having an accurate baseline is critical for understanding progress towards goals during the journey.

Companies cannot achieve great culture without first defining great culture

Great culture is more regularly discussed in the context of the residual outcomes attributed to culture, not the fundamental objectives that define it. Companies regularly attempt to improve culture for better employee retention, increased offer acceptance rates during recruiting and/or to raise employee engagement scores (among other metrics). Yet, none of these metrics speak to the definition of their culture.

Defining the target culture begins with understanding the customer experience that the business wants to provide to its customers. This experience should naturally identify behavioral attributes that the company needs its people to exhibit. These become the basis for defining culture.

Many dimensions of business operating model contribute to culture. The cultural dimensions have markers which exist on continuums. Companies need to use this targeted customer experience to define how they want employees to behave in terms of:

  • Autonomy – Highly independent to highly collaborative
  • Interactions – Principally in-person to principally virtual
  • Progression – Meritocracy to tenure-based
  • Balance – Drive for excellence at all cost to drive for efficient work-life balance
  • Risk appetite – Aggressively tolerant to carefully averse
  • Relationships – Strictly professional to family-like
  • Drive – Sense of community to sense of competition
  • Feedback – Formal to Informal; Top-down to 360
  • Careers – Employee owned to leadership led
  • Attire – Formal/traditional to informal/flexible

Companies may choose to add or remove markers from this list but looking at fundamental mindsets not residual outcomes is key to effectively sculpting corporate culture.

Devising a plan for change

Having made the linkage from customer experience to culture markers, companies can begin to build plans for culture change. Understanding the current performance is key both because companies should avoid fixing things that are not broken and require a useful reference if they want to understand and track progress. Both the current situation and the target situation need to be understood.

With the reference performance and targets captured, companies can begin to think about ways to intervene in culture and create change. There are many ways to accomplish change, but most can be classified as one of:

  • Communication
  • Compensation
  • Infrastructure
  • Leadership example
  • Process change
  • Recruitment

Regardless of selection of instruments to create change (a topic beyond the scope of this blog post), the process that follows should be similar.

  1. Prioritize the cultural markers to change.
  2. Identify performance indicators to understand performance and assess current performance.
  3. Describe desired “end state” performance level for each marker, the first performance level that would indicate successful progress and at least one performance level in between. These become performance milestones.
  4. Determine which interventions will impact which cultural markers.
  5. Devise a plan for driving cultural change which addresses no more than two markers at any point in time, but which triggers new or additional actions based on hitting certain performance milestones.

Companies must limit themselves to focus on moving no more than one or two markers to the next milestone at any point in time. Companies, usually out of well-intentioned exuberance, typically push either for cultural change on many dimensions concurrently or push too hard and early for an end state goal on one dimension (or worse, a combination of both).

Focusing on one or two dimensions reduces the burden on the company and employees during the journey. Change is always difficult. Changing in many ways at once is much harder than changing in one or two ways.

Working towards modest, incremental goals enables the company to both know it is making progress and celebrate that progress. When interim milestones are destinations to celebrate rather than reminders that you have not reached your destination there is greater incentive for people to participate in the journey and a more natural enjoyment with the change.

This incrementalistic approach empowers companies and employers to aggregate many small victories in the complete change that is ultimately needed.