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Understanding the Culture Change Landscape

Grant Schmidt, Global GM of Culture & Performance GFG Alliance

Grant Schmidt, Global GM of Culture & Performance GFG Alliance

Culture change, let alone genuine culture transformation, is a very tricky business, and the statistics that are evidence to this reality are both compelling and confronting. Attempts at change, particularly culture change, will be met with a probability of failure three times greater than success. It’s been this way for a long time. John Kotter published his seminal book— Making Change Happen in 1996, and over the ensuing 17 years, some 25,000 books have been published on the topic of change and how to do it better. Yet, McKinsey, in its offering—Beyond Performance 2.0 (2018)—indicates that the probability of large scale change initiatives succeeding remains unchanged from Kotter’s original findings of c. 30percent.

Despite the negative prospects for large scale culture change initiatives to succeed, or perhaps because of it, culture is the number one priority for HR leaders in the eyes of CEOs that sets up a real conundrum. CEOs know culture and culture change is vitally important to their ability to operationalize their strategies–just ask any of the current or recently departed CEOs of Australia’s major trading banks. Yet, the prospects of culture change occurring are depressingly low. So, what are we to do?

There may be hope to solve this conundrum, but it comes from an unlikely place; something that has the potential to change the game of how we think about and act on culture and how we change it – and that is the technology. So is technology the game-changer that breaks through one of the hardest challenges of all and one that is often laid at the feet of HR to solve for – ie culture change? So, the question is, can organizations use technology to transform culture at a scale and speed uncommon to the traditional, well-worn approaches that are far more likely to fail than succeed by a frightening margin?

I’ve spent the past decade exploring, experimenting, and testing the use of technology to change culture at scale and at speed. My proposition is that we can indeed harness technology to change cultures but—it’s a big but—using technology to simply systematize traditional, centralized, top-down approaches to culture change are bound to fail. However, applying technology to scale systems that support self-determined change where individual choice for change is encouraged and amplified through the use of technology, I believe is far more likely to succeed—scaled self-determination not systematizing traditional top-down change.

So, let’s look at this notion of culture change through self-determination. Somewhat ironically, traditional approaches to culture change are neither largely inspiring nor particularly motivating. They usually follow a well-trodden path—CEO-owned, leader-led, change champions identified and badge, Gantt charts of sheep-dipping workshops with “on the bus or off the bus” rally cries and the upheavals that almost always accompany those bus journeys.

An alternative—possibly a radical alternative—to such an approach is to completely flip traditional approaches on their heads. Rather than pursuing culture change from the top, seek change through powering-up the self-determination of the people whose mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors our organizations are seeking to change.

Self Determination, put simply, is the ability or power to make decisions for you. Self-determination theory (SDT) (3) is a macro theory of human motivation and personality, concerned with the motivation behind choices people make without external influence and interference. SDT focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and self-determined. I believe that self determination is the ‘missing key’ to realizing the quest for real culture change. It is self determination that is the fuel of discretionary effort that is at the heart of any genuine and lasting culture change endeavor. But the paradox is self determined change can only occur at the level of the individual and to achieve this at scale, we need technology to help.

At GFG Alliance, we are pursuing a huge culture-shaping effort. We have eight major initiatives, all based on the self-determined culture change and all drawing on technology to enable them.

If you are really serious about culture and looking to change the culture of your organization:

1. Consider the purpose of your culture change initiatives. Are they simply systematizing, traditional, centralized, top-down approaches, versus the possibility to tap into the potential power of technology to enable genuine self-determined change.

2. Throw caution to the wind and experiment with technologies that can support culture change at scale and speed. It may involve placing some big bets and this may feel very uncomfortable.

3. I believe, the power of technology to change culture, is only as good as its ability to empower people to change, so invest in technology that powers-up people rather than technology that inherently seeks to control them.

Using technology alone risks de-humanizing our organizations. We need to harness the power of technology, not for technology’s sake, but for the sake of our people. Technology empowers people to self-determine their future within the boundaries of the vision and strategies that our organizations portray to their people. This is neither an easy nor a well-trodden path but I believe it is a path worth pursuing. Indeed it is a noble path to enable self determined change for our people and one that I believe will be vitally important to GFG Alliance’s future.

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