How long does it really take to change your culture?

Amanda Fajak

I have been on a pilgrimage of sorts over the past few weeks, retracing the events of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. My father was a revolutionary and we had a very emotional time reliving the rise of communism.  One of the things that struck me is how quickly communism took hold in the late 1940s and how deeply it became entrenched. It made me ponder on a question that I am asked regularly… ‘how long will it take for us to change our culture?’ How long does culture transformation take to achieve in organisational culture

The standard belief is that culture change takes 2-3 years to occur. A timeframe that is becoming increasingly unpalatable in our world of rapid change? A company’s business model might have changed twice in that time, you might have a new executive team, possibly a new CEO. The time it takes to change culture I believe is one of the deterrents to people engaging in change.

Let’s bust the myth… you can change culture in less than 2-3 years. But you need to do some important things and they spell the difference between evolution and revolution.

Focus your energy – if you try to do too much it will take you a long time to change your culture as you are dissipating your energy. Invest your time up front to understand the root cause of your cultural challenges and then be laser focussed on the 1-2 things that will make the difference.

Invest – time, energy, resources. As Roosevelt famously stated ‘Nothing worth having was ever achieved without effort’ and this is the case for culture change.  CEOs who delegate culture down their business and only ever discuss it at a Steering Committee will never achieve change. The more actively an organisation encourages, discourages and sets new standards on behaviours in every moment, the faster the organisation will change.

Leaders as role models – the fastest cultural shifts I have experienced are when the leaders are authentically and determinedly working on themselves, making changes and talking about those changes and their impact on the business openly with others. This intense ‘evidence’ that leaders are committed to change is without doubt powerful and critical for momentum. As I was once advised… ‘what my boss finds interesting… I find fascinating’. Leaders set the tone on what is important and if vulnerable, make it safe for everyone else in the organisation to step into the change.

Top down AND bottom up – There is no question that leaders set the tone of the culture BUT focussing purely on leaders for change ignores other critical social dynamics in your organisation that you can be leveraging to fast track change.

  • Champions – there are always a passionate group of enthusiasts who are your change cheerleaders. Leverage their energy to catalyst change
  • Role models – once you are laser focussed on the change you want to make you will have people who already demonstrate these behaviours – find them and give them a voice
  • Influencers – outside of your formal hierarchy there is a huge power base – the informal dynamic of influence and communication flows means that if you know who your informal influencers are, you can find ways to engage them and leverage them to help you in the change

With a carefully planned transformation leveraging all of these dimensions, your organisation can feel very different within 12 months. Consistency and persistence however are needed so that you don’t declare victory too soon – remember your people are watching and waiting to see whether this is for the long haul.


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