In the dynamic environment of your business, the importance of organizational culture cannot be overstated. Culture, often described as the soul of an organization, shapes interactions, decision-making, and overall workplace environment. However, while many organizations recognize the need for cultural change, they often lack a comprehensive design framework to guide this complex transformation. This absence can lead to fragmented efforts and unmet objectives.

Design the Design

The practice of “designing the design” plays a critical role in the success of any organization’s culture change initiative. Interestingly, many organizations eagerly dive headfirst into various aspects of change, investing considerable time and resources into different elements of cultural transformation. However, these same organizations often overlook the necessity of creating an overarching, comprehensive design framework to guide their endeavours.

A design framework is crucial for ensuring that all elements of culture change are cohesively working towards a shared vision and goal. Without this framework in place, efforts become disjointed, work is unecessarily duplicated or fragmented, culture champions silo and grow frustrated, and the desired shift in organizational culture falters. Ironically, when this happens, organizational ledaers may fall into a perptual state of tinkering or redoing the same actions – only causing more of what is not desired.

This “doom loop” is often, to some degree, due to the lack of an overall design framework for the culture change process. Simply, leaders and people don’t know what steps to follow and/or where there are in the culture change process. This results in them simply trying harder to do the same things with different results. Therefore, to optimize the chances of successful and sustainable culture change, organizations should prioritize designing the overall framework before diving into the details.

Design Your Framework

We use a flexible model that is constuctued off of our change model, Ready, Set, Go. You can see the five elements below. As the statistician George Box quipped, All models are wrong, some are useful. Our model is not presented as a final word on designing culture change. Rather, it reveals important elements of the process – both in concept and in sequence. You may find you need to add or edit the model to make it yours. But it provides a beginning point for the design of a framework.


Five Elements of the Design Process for Cultural Change

  1. Ready and Gather: The first step is creating a readiness for change and gathering insights. It involves readying people around the necessity for change and collecting data on the current cultural landscape versus the desired future. This stage sets the tone for a transparent and inclusive journey ahead. This step can include large and small conversations about the culture, surveys, interviews, groups dialouges and more. This is both about finding unity around the need for change and what the culture would look like if change occurred.
  2. Organize and Categorize: After gathering information, the next step is to organize and categorize this data. This process identifies prevailing themes and discrepancies between the current state and future aspirations. It helps in pinpointing areas requiring immediate attention and provides a structured path forward. Organizations often spend too little time turning all the inputs from the first step into meaningful themes that can drive perspectives on needed culture change.  Often an organization doesn’t need more data – about their culture – but rather they need to find the themes in the data that can unite perspective and energize the need for change.
  3. Conceptualize: Here, themes becomes unfied into a picture of the future. Using the gathered data, strategic priorities, and core values, a graphical representation of the future culture is developed. This visualization serves as a north star, guiding future actions and decisions. The power of this visual is how it can capture the future desire in a snapshot. The danger is that cultural change is reduced to a snapshot and the work behind the visual goes undone.
  4. Align: Alignment demands commitment from all stakeholders, especially leadership. This phase is about reconciling individual and organizational aspirations and behaviors with the new cultural vision. It’s a crucial juncture where the proposed change is either embraced or rejected. Alignment often requires that key stakeholders surrender some of their own desires and unify around a common vision of culture change for the organization. Alignment is not a one time affair. As culture change moves deep into actions and activities, stakeholders will likely realize areas where their own behavior does not match what is required for culture change. These “moments of truth” require realignment and often time for stakeholders to process the needed change with colleagues and leaders.
  5. Act and Adapt: Culture change must change behavior – both individually and organizationally. If people don’t feel change, in their own behavior and in the behavior of the entire organization, it is likley they have not yet moved to action.  Organizations should ask often, “does this feel different?” Change actions must upset the inertia of behavior and make real progress toward the conceptualized future. However, this isn’t a one-and-done step. It involves continuous adaptation and realignment to ensure the actions are effectively shaping the culture towards the envisioned future.

The Overlapping and Iterative Nature of the Process

While these elements appear sequential, it’s important to understand that cultural change is neither linear nor rigid. There’s a fluid, overlapping nature to these steps, often requiring simultaneous attention. For instance, while working on alignment, an organization might need to revisit and adapt its conceptualized vision. This iterative process ensures that the change is responsive and relevant to the evolving organizational context.

Remember, to tailor your framework to the environment of your organization. Don’t copy someone else’s work. It won’t survive. You have to do the work yourself.

Navigating Stagnation in the Process

A common challenge for organizational leaders is getting stuck in one phase of the design framework. For example, a company might excel in gathering data but struggle to move into the conceptualization phase. This stagnation can derail the entire cultural change process. Leaders must be vigilant, identifying where and why they are stuck. Sometimes, moving forward requires revisiting previous steps, seeking external consultation, or simply taking a leap of faith into the unknown.

Moving Forward in Your Organizational Culture Change

If you find your organization stalled in its cultural transformation, ask yourself: Where are we in this framework? What is holding us back? Often, the barrier is not a lack of resources but a resistance to change, a misalignment of visions, or a gap in communication.

As a leader, your role is to navigate these challenges, fostering an environment that embraces change while being adaptable and resilient. Remember, cultural change is a journey, not a destination. It requires patience, commitment, and a well-thought-out design framework like the one outlined above. With this framework, you can ensure that your efforts are cohesive, strategic, and, most importantly, effective in bringing about the desired transformation in your organization’s culture.