The Three Most Common Pitfalls of Culture Change

By Fran Cherny | Feb 05, 2020

Most executive teams I’ve worked with are genuinely convinced of the need to make culture change happen. They all want to be more flexible, ‘agile’, and customer-focused in order to grow and innovate in today’s uncertain and rapidly changing environment. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, most leaders recognize that mindset change is key to being successful in this transformation.
However, and despite sincere enthusiasm from leaders and executives, in most organizations cultural change hardly ever materializes as intended. It rarely happens at the pace and depth leaders had hoped for when they started the process. So the question is, why is this?
After more than ten years’ experience facilitating and advising on culture transformation programs, I have identified three common pitfalls that trap most executives during the change process. My purpose in this article is to discuss how these pitfalls emerge and suggest three concrete solutions that could help to avoid them.
The first pitfall is following trending topics instead of making them “trending habits”.
Culture and mindset change are current trends. And I really love this! But trends can also create a problem. Whenever I teach the Victim-Player mindsets, everyone recognizes the need to become more of a Player; to focus more on solutions rather than on limiting factors. When I explain how to operate in a Growth Mindset and focus on our never-ending capacity to do better, executive teams are usually instantly willing to embrace it. The benefits are evident to all.
However, if we only become enamored with the concept, we can easily fall into the trap of missing the factor that is key to making these new mindsets work in practice.
When mindsets are taught without creating the context for them to blossom and an activity system that translates them into habits, they will easily dilute. Instead of loving doing it, you will only love the concept.
For instance, I can perfectly teach the Victim-Player mindset, conceptually and with some practice, in a two-hour slot (and even in a 10-minute slot!). However, the learning process is far from complete if we don’t understand –and then practice– how to translate these concepts into our daily routines.
How do we become the person who naturally brings this mindset alive? To make this happen I find it key to focus on the one thing that occurs in organizations all the time: conversations (with others and with ourselves). What do we do every day? We think, discuss, negotiate, commit and deliver something. We are in meetings, writing emails or exchanging instant messages all day, and when we are not talking to someone, we are talking to ourselves. The quality of these conversations and the way in which they happen are an asset or a liability to how corporate culture is built.
Culture change programs must always include the introduction of concrete habits that apply the new mindsets to conversations and meetings as a key artifact where we express how we do things. For example, changing the way we set the agenda of a meeting can be a simple but powerful tool to improve coordination and make commitments and responsibilities more transparent. Processing together at the end of a meeting how we could have done better can be, for instance, an effective way of applying the Learner Mindset. Thus avoiding the unhealthy habit of judging the quality of the meeting in the hallway, a common vice that boycotts the learning process of the group and feeds the ‘inner Knower’ in ourselves.
In short, in order to make change happen, we need to make a mindset a habit, and a habit a mindset. Creating this virtuous cycle is key to helping new mindsets take root and making culture transformation a powerful lubricant for business growth and innovation.
The second pitfall is not the design of change programs, but the behaviors of those that lead them.
The problem is as follows: A manager or an organization implements a program to equip a team with a new mindset, yet the program is led by people that still operate with an old one.
Let me offer an example. A leader wants to create a pilot to train an executive group to be more innovative and agile, adopting a Player and Learner mindset. The process will encounter a number of setbacks, which is to be expected with most new programs. While this is not a problem per se, what I have observed many times is that the leader quickly focuses on who created the setback, who is to blame, and even considers canceling the program if people don’t fully “like it” or get on board. This is the opposite of what being innovative and a Player and Learner is all about.
By adopting these defensive attitudes, executives and leaders miss a great opportunity to start changing culture “on the job” by assuming responsibility and taking corrective action. Or even better, by acknowledging that they might not know how to solve some of the issues and share the problem with the group to search for solutions in a process of collective learning and cooperation.
In short, leading change from the old mindset can never really work. In any change program the process itself must be the ‘spearhead’ to break into the new mindset. In order to lead a culture change, we as the leaders need to be a few steps ahead in embodying the new values and so send the right signals and symbols that will inspire everyone else to follow.
The third pitfall is based on an interesting paradox: ‘in order to move fast we need to start slow.’
Some of the most common phrases I hear from leaders in organizations that want to embark on culture change programs start something like this: “We need to change corporate culture; it is critical for the business.” “It is one of our top 3 priorities.” “Changing culture is key to our future success.” And right after saying this they complement it with one or both of the following: “We have a very limited budget and have just one shot to make it happen.” “We need this urgently!”
I suspect that many people reading might not only have heard something like this before but might also have said something similar.
How does this urgency translate then into the implementation of change processes? I will illustrate the problem with an example: Recently, I was hired to implement a pilot to help a team adopt a Learner Mindset that was critical to becoming more customer-centric. Yet, at the end of the process, the leadership team wanted to assess the success of the program by measuring specific business outcomes, even when we were just piloting to learn. They were exclusively focused on whether a certain ‘result’ was actually achieved rather than on the experience of adopting a Learner Mindset, on really creating the capability that will enable this mindset to flourish and be multiplied.
Both Learner and Growth Mindsets are about creating experiences that motivate teams to continue learning in an ever-evolving process. Yet, leaders seem to be more interested in cutting the program short and grasping a tangible fixed result as soon as they can. This not only goes against the essence of the mindsets they are trying to teach, but also erodes the capacity to create the change they want with so much urgency in the first place.
The result of such behaviors is usually a series of never-ending pilots, recurrent change of consulting firms in search of a ‘magic pill’, and many other attempts that fail to produce real change in corporate culture. Executives find themselves ‘running in circles’ and ultimately the organization spends much more money, time, and energy than what is actually required to make a change program successful.
Applying the Player, Learner and Growth Mindsets to this article
I invite you, reading this, not to challenge my words by finding what is not fully true for you, but try to find situations in which this might have happened, to you, your team or your organization, and how you can think of a different way to respond to the challenge. Is there any new thought or idea worth trying? Let me give you some advice, stop thinking of others and just start with yourself!
Now that we have identified the basic problem, a natural question arises: is there a way to get out of these pitfalls? My answer is yes, and summarized below are my three fundamental recommendations:

  • Acknowledge your Biases and Limitations: This is perhaps the most important and fundamental of all considerations. As I already explained above, one of the main pitfalls that prevent real change from happening is that programs that train teams to adopt new mindsets are led by people that still operate with an old one. In order to avoid this problem, it is essential for executives to recognize that, in many cases, they might not be ready to lead the process.
  • Look for support! Whenever you are getting into territory you haven’t navigated before, it is always a good idea to have someone around to guide, support or advice you (or all 3 together). Someone who has no other agenda than making things happen with you.
  • Train a Pioneering Team: Before starting the implementation of a company-wide program, is very important to first train a small team within the company that fully adopts the new mindsets and that is respected by others. Once this team is attuned, the program can then be extended to other groups, maintaining a commitment to follow the pioneers. In short, before sharing and deploying a big and ambitious change program, make sure that at least a small group is one step ahead to lead the way.

In my next article, I will elaborate further on these three recommendations, and especially in this latter point, which I consider the most fundamental step to becoming truly successful change leaders.

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