Nothing stops the change process in its tracks like hearing, “Our culture won’t allow us to do that.”

Though the words are simple — often uttered reflexively with little thought — they can serve as a daunting wall in the path of positive change.

How Is Culture Built?

Culture consists of the behavior patterns of people who live within it. The patterns are the result of an understanding by individuals of their role (or roles) within an organization. The culture emerges and takes shape via these engrained mind maps, created by the connected thoughts of individuals.

To change culture, we must tackle mind maps (thought paths), roles and patterns.

There are countless texts about culture change. A recent insightful publication by Siobhan McHale, a change consultant who has worked in the trenches for more than 20 years, breaks workplace culture down into three elements:

  • Mind maps
  • Patterns
  • Roles

Published in 2020, “The Insider's Guide to Culture Change: Creating a Workplace That Delivers, Grows, and Adapts” offers effective, easily applied and tried-and-true advice on one of the most challenging aspects of implementing real change in today’s business environment.

Defining the Elements

Here are broad descriptions of the three elements McHale discusses:

Mind maps: These are a series of thoughts, each following and affecting the next through linking words and linking concepts, ultimately reaching a final decision or conclusion. This can be illustrated by the process of vacation planning. My first thought may be: I want to schedule some time off and go somewhere. I then proceed through a series of thoughts linked to options on when, where and what we will do, until reaching a conclusion. Our minds follow self-created maps that can be visualized in many ways, perhaps on a board through a series of actions and decisions.

Patterns: A grouping of linked behaviors, rather than a single behavior, results in a thought pattern. To illustrate, I tend to wake up daily at 5 a.m. and then get on the treadmill for a 1-mile run before getting into other daily activities. This is a pattern, not a behavior. Patterns are regular, consistent, linked behaviors that follow in predictable pathways, like following a groove on a record.

Roles: Most people have a good idea of their roles in the workplace, usually because someone in authority has defined their jobs. How roles are defined can make a powerful difference. Perhaps someone tells you your job is to serve as a “guard.” But slight nuances in how this role is defined can result in different mindsets and patterns of behavior. Suppose someone says: “I want you to help Ms. Peterson cross the street.” Then someone else says: “I want you to guard Ms. Peterson and keep her from being harmed.” One role is specific while the other is broad. This can result in different mind maps and patterns of behavior.

Consider Parallel Workstreams

My experience with culture-shifting follows McHale’s recommendations, though with a slight variation.

I first concentrate on redefining roles and what success would look like if a role were optimally performed. This then creates new mind maps and patterns of behavior. Change efforts should follow two parallel workstreams:

  1. Create a clear understanding, acceptance and ability to perform a role in times of change.
  2. Create a clear understanding, acceptance and ability to perform the change itself as designed.

By keeping both workstreams alive and well, we can shift a culture and change mindsets toward positive, continuous improvement.

Another effective action that helps to establish new mind maps and patterns within the change team is to fully define and then repeat questions such as:

  • What does success look like?
  • How will we know we are there?
  • How should Person X think, act and perform if he or she fully understands his or her role in this change?

Asking these sorts of questions helps to identify and define the gaps we are trying to close. Our current state of where we are now should be compared and contrasted with our future state of where we want to be.

A Final Word of Caution

We must remember we are dealing with human beings, so we must meet them where they’re at and push them at a pace they can handle. We’ve all heard this before, though it bears repeating. My own experience in proceeding at an uncomfortably fast pace has refreshed this concept for me in terms of bruised tissue.

While the end goal may be clear to the change practitioner, it may be an abstract concept defined by words that seem unfamiliar and far away to those we are trying to reach. Conventional techniques for adult learning say to push individuals just outside their comfort zone. There is a fine line, however, when discomfort can lock people down if pushed too far. If this happens, it takes much longer to reach our end goal for the change we want to see. Remember, it is important to tailor the pace, not just the strategy.

 

Transformational change takes courage and may cause discomfort in many organizations.

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Dana Houston Jackson is the lead principal change adviser at 1898 & Co., part of Burns & McDonnell. A straight shooter and advocate of new thinking, Dana prides herself in simplifying the complex in a “box-poking,” 25-year career in organizational development and change management. Some of her clients include energy, utility, technology, manufacturing and construction companies, government and academia, and nonprofits.