Managing change across multiple cultures
How change is changing: a journey through the effects of culture
When I started helping organisations manage change projects over 12 years ago, the focus was largely on ensuring people were told of the change and made ready to do things the new way. Apart from a very enlightened few, little attention was given to the how the change related to the way people thought about the work they did, or even how they felt about the change. Later, when I started training change management, I discovered that focus on managing culture changes only occurred in only around 10% of projects .
Today that has changed completely. Now about 80% of course attendees are either solely focused on ‘changing the culture’ or pay considerable attention to values/the way we do things/attitudes/the culture. There is also more focus on culture at change management conferences, building on practitioner-based experience of the effect of culture on change management. Now I am in touch with a few hundred projects each year, and the shift has been remarkable. And this across industries as diverse as banking, mining, and manufacturing.
Currently, I am hearing practitioners say that they finally have indicators and elements they need to plan change. Some have tools, normally emerging from academics and consultants in this space. From my position observing projects in both small/medium, single location organisations and large, global multinationals I have worked with over years, I think I can offer a perspective that spans the entire change management field.
Whose culture counts?
First up, when speaking of the culture in which the change occurs, are we talking of one or more cultures?
I think its more. Organisations operate in a society, and that has its own value system. Then the organisation has its own, overall value system; generally, but not always, set by the top echelon. Then the department/group/function within the organisation may also have its own interpretation of the ‘values’ that are diligently posted in meeting rooms and passages! (By the way; next time you are in a meeting just ask the group to list all the values on those posters, quickly, without thinking too much – that will tell its own story!) Of course, many of us have read how cultures vary across countries. These too have an influence, although, in my experience, this has varied in strength depending on the relative threat of the change (the higher the threat the more people revert to their deeply-held values) and the degree to which the affected group contains people from that location. Indeed, often societal values are the weakest influencer of response and behaviour.
I have found that you cannot predict which of these will dominate until you start engaging with the affected group. I have seen some functions dominated by the values instilled by its charismatic and skilled leader, with other values played down. Yet, elsewhere for the same change, in a different location in the same organisation, the values of the organisation had influenced peoples’ responses more strongly. So, resistance was different, adoption and utilisation was different and change plans had to match these realities.
Which cultural factors matter the most?
Some research has been done in this area; principally by geographical region and industry. Not surprisingly, there are differences. (The popular ones are described in our theme on culture elsewhere on the website.) For me, these form a great base on which to create a hypothesis. For example, in an European context, assertiveness (which could be defined as the extent to which someone is expected to promote their personal interests) is apparently quite important, but even more important within changes in the IT or Retail space, than in local government. So, a practitioner could test this in a change in the IT department, but would have to take into account the values driven by the IT Director.
Which components of our change plans are affected?
Communications, resistance and sponsorship are all popular areas. If, however, we overlay an ADKAR perspective we quickly realise that this spans all 5 of Change Management’s tactical plans. I have seen how training and coaching, for example, were positively affected by cultural insight. People just ‘get it’ quicker when we give them space to express themselves in a ‘comfortable’ way, in a learning situation. In our case we were trying to help them understand how they would apply a new process of engaging leaders to coach their people in a new method of risk analysis. We were customising their learning experience to allow them a safe space to relate what they were learning to the operational challenges they were currently experiencing.
In future diaries, we will look to each area in more detail, to help us understand how to leverage cultural knowledge and awareness to increase the effectiveness of our change management.
So, we may want to:
- Be aware and identify the cultures (not culture) that operate on the impacted groups
- Use the research to establish hypotheses of how people in each group could respond or resist, and TEST this with the affected people
- Understand the value system of the key, influencing, leaders and understand how this is modulating the culture of the impacted groups
 ADKAR is a trade mark of Prosci Inc., describing a model for individual change.