4 Efficient Steps To a Positive Culture

Creating organizational culture change can be hard. We may not initially have the skills we need. We have to sustain our energy and commitment to the change process, while continuing to fulfill our other job responsibilities well. We have to persist even through skepticism and resistance along the way.

Oftentimes, we believe such change efforts are costly in both time and money. That can sometimes be true, but does not have to be the case. Here are five steps to get started in catalyzing organizational culture change, even when time and money are tight.

1) Define the result you are trying to create

How would you describe the culture you have today? What would you like it to be? It is useful to map your present and desired culture on several dimensions.

The Competing Values Framework considers organizational culture on four different elements: Create, Collaborate, Compete, and Control. All four dimensions are desirable elements of a culture. At the same time, they need to stay in balance. We need both collaboration and a healthy competitive spirit to have the impact we want to have in the world. We need both creativity and consistent processes (control) in order to achieve our potential. Take a moment and give your team or organization an estimated score for each of these four dimensions. What would you like these scores to be in the future? The differential helps you understand and communicate the change you are trying to bring about.

You may also choose to write a vision for your new culture. Imagine your desired outcome is now reality. How does it look? Sound? Smell? Taste? Feel? How do people treat each other? What do they focus on? What do they not focus on? Be as descriptive as possible, and invite others to share their visions too. This lurid picture of a desired future state will pull you and others toward it.

2) Find fellow change agents

Culture change is a collective effort. You may make great strides toward personal growth, but unless you bring others with you, the overall environment will remain largely unaltered. Without shared progress, your personal motivation may start to fade. You will run the risk of becoming frustrated, cynical, and burned out.

Finding like-minded partners is the best way to sustain your own motivation, and to reach your goals faster. Start close in. Over the last month, who are the people with whom you have enjoyed an energizing, mutually supportive connection? These positive energizers have impact that ripples outward. They can be a reservoir of support for each other, and a source of inspiration to the rest of the organization. This group can form the basis of a change team. Invite them to join you in this quest.

3) Build momentum

Creating change is a collective learning process. We decide to try something new with the aim of achieving a different outcome. We run experiments and observe ourselves and others to see what happens. We take our learnings from these micro-moves to make refinements and improvements. We create endless spirals of possibility and upward trajectory toward our goals.

To support this collective learning process, a diverse group of change agents affiliated with the Center for Positive Organizations created a Community of Practice Guide. (Thanks here to Chris Murchison, Rebecca Beagan, Monica Worline, Paul and Diane Jones, and Belinda Liu!) The guide is free to download, and all of the resources and tools included in it are either free or relatively inexpensive to purchase. The guide is designed to support self-organizing groups of 8-10 people to come together on a regular basis to learn from each other, and from research-based content and tools. Group members then introduce what they are learning to their teams and colleagues. They bring back what they experience to the group. The energy and impact builds day by day.

4) Replicate rather than grow

As the experiments you run begin to take effect, you will likely find that other people want to join the Community of Practice group. This is great! It is a sign that your impact is growing, and has the potential to grow still further.

It will be tempting to accept requests to join the group. But beware! If the group grows much beyond 8-10 people, some of the tight-knit, supportive learning environment may be diminished. It may be better to instead seek to replicate the Community of Practice group, rather than expand its membership. Periodically – say every six months – the original group can split into two groups. This opens the possibility for 4-5 new members to join each of the two groups. In another six months, these two groups can each split to make four groups; 16-20 new members can join groups. In this way, by the end of one year, you may have up to 40 people actively involved in bringing positive cultural change to their teams and colleagues.

With this momentum reaching disparate corners of the organization, you may gain the interest and support of senior organizational leadership. The steps to this point have been frugal in terms of the formal time and money investment. Your progress opens the possibility of securing the budget to make targeted investments. For instance, you may be able to create a regular in-person training series for all Community of Practice members, delivered by an outside expert. You may be able to have someone devote part of his or her time to coordinating and supporting the groups. You may be able to provide branded t-shirts or mugs to build a sense of collective culture and identity across all of the change agents now involved.

With a low cost base for the ongoing collective learning process, relatively small investments like these can go a long way. Before you know it, this is a broad organization-wide movement; a movement that started with you!

Chris White (@leadpositivelyleadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business (@MichiganRoss). The Center is the convener of the Positive Organizations Consortium, a catalytic co-learning community of leaders actively building high-performing organizations where people thrive.