Why do so many culture transformations fail?

Carolyn Taylor

Transformation is a significant change in form and function that is irreversible and sustainable, for example turning coal into diamonds. In the business world, it is more than simply restructuring your organisation. Why do so many transformations, including culture change, fail?

1.    Failure to change mindsets

At Walking the Talk, we’ve always believed that if you want to transform your company, you must start with shifting people’s mindsets. If you don’t understand the beliefs that are driving the behaviours you see in your organisation, you won’t be addressing their root causes. In recent years, transformation has become an overused word in corporations, often describing surface level changes to structures with no work done on people’s mindsets, beliefs, or behaviours. Many transformations we see don’t have enough focus on changing underlying patterns of thinking. Superficial changes of this type simply do not transform organisations – only deeper, more intentional, targeted work on changing mindsets can do that. Once this work is underway, you can simultaneously reinforce it with supporting structures, systems, and symbols.

2.    Losing sight of the end goal

Another cause of transformations failing is organisations becoming caught up in activity and not focusing enough on the end state. It’s very easy to create workstreams and project plans, but it’s critical to consistently communicate to your people the vision of what your business will look like on the other side of the transformation. The why is vital for meaning, motivation and morale, and needs to become a regular drumbeat through all your leadership communications. If you keep the end goal in sight at all times it makes a huge difference. Organisations who forget this often find their transformation efforts wither and die.

3.    Trying to do it all 

A familiar challenge we see in many businesses is trying to take on too much all at once. For example, with our culture work, we often find companies have shopping lists of behaviours that they want to change. They underestimate or don’t appreciate how incredibly difficult it is to change multiple behaviours simultaneously. When you’re attempting to instigate sustainable cultural change across a business, that takes time. Focusing all your energy for one-two years on shifting a single behaviour will significantly increase your chances of your transformation succeeding. Diluting your efforts across too many activities means you won’t achieve traction, and in the absence of results, people become discouraged, demotivated, and failure becomes inevitable. 

With the world changing faster than ever, businesses are constantly and rapidly re-thinking their operating models. But to truly transform, you have to start with your people – their mindsets, beliefs, and behaviours will determine whether you achieve your desired outcomes. 

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