Culture Change (Line Dance?) Or Culture Transformation (Moonwalk?)

Culture Change (Line Dance?) Or Culture Transformation (Moonwalk?)
Katherine Canales/SweetRush
Summary: Culture change and cultural transformation look similar, but aren’t: culture change involves "the way we do things around here" (think process) while cultural transformation means a complete reassessment and overhaul of an organization’s character.

Learn The Steps: Culture Change And Transformation

While both culture change and cultural transformation impact culture, the requirements, scale, and methodologies for cultural transformation can be as different from those for culture change as the moonwalk is from a line dance. (Hang in. Obscure reference explained below.)

eBook Release: Secrets Of Effective L&D Leaders: Innovation, Embracing Change, And Cultural Transformation
eBook Release
Secrets Of Effective L&D Leaders: Innovation, Embracing Change, And Cultural Transformation
Discover insights and practical advice on culture change and transformation.

What Is Culture Change?

Culture change targets a particular aspect of "the way we do things around here" for improvement. Maybe you’re switching from one LMS to another. Maybe the COO is seeking a new communication strategy to improve her team’s collaboration. Maybe your company is growing and you’re figuring out how to enhance your onboarding process. Or you may be kicking off an organization-wide change management training to protect and increase productivity.

When you think culture change, think discrete, specific initiatives like these. Changes that impact culture are those that change shared processes, working relationships (i.e., team or cross-functional relationships), or customer interactions, or that solve chronic productivity issues. Change asks questions like, Which targeted elements of the way we operate together aren’t working? What do we need to do about it? How will we do it? 

What Does Cultural Transformation Look Like?

Cultural transformation means a complete reassessment and overhaul of the character of an organization. Transformation asks questions like, Why are we in business? What is our promise/purpose/contribution? Who do we serve? What do we want our future to look like? What does that mean for us? These are the big questions, and there are no easy answers or incremental efforts in this "big picture," holistic, and transformative view of your organization. Once the questions are defined and the answers are articulated, you can develop the new vision for the organization.

Harvard Business Review makes the distinction between transformation and change this way [1]:

Transformation is another animal altogether. Unlike change management, it doesn’t focus on a few discrete, well-defined shifts, but rather on a portfolio of initiatives, which are interdependent or intersecting. More importantly, the overall goal of transformation is not just to execute a defined change—but to reinvent the organization and discover a new or revised business model based on a vision for the future. It’s much more unpredictable, iterative, and experimental. It entails much higher risk.

Culture Change: Almost As Easy As A Line Dance

Line dances are "choreographed dances with a repeating series of steps that are performed in unison by a group of people in lines or rows, most often without the dancers making contact with one another [2]."

How is culture change like line dancing? Culture change is about revamping a particular aspect of our shared processes. Said another way, culture change is about intentionally changing the choreography of the repetitive processes that are owned and executed by teams. The steps in the shared process might change. The members of the team might change. Team goals might change. With each change, the team has to learn a new routine. And at the risk of beating a dead metaphor, they often have to learn the new routine without making contact with each other, although someone (leadership) is beating the drum.

I worked with the Executive Vice President of Services for a major bank as they acquired many smaller banks in a short period of time. The bank itself was in the throes of cultural transformation as it moved toward its vision of massive growth. Their ability to rapidly integrate the cultures of their newly acquired banks created a massive, yet agile, cultural framework (and a competitive advantage) as they grew to become one of the largest banks in the United States.

Throughout the ongoing cultural transformation, the Executive Vice President of Services was focused on culture change initiatives. He was busy reassessing every aspect of operations under his purview. One project was to reexamine risk assumptions in every process within the branch system to free up time for building more profitable customer relationships. He changed the repetitive service and administrative policies for opportunities to increase efficiencies and drive customer satisfaction. ­­­His leadership succeeded in changing the culture of the branch system, which improved both customer and employee satisfaction ratings.

Successful culture change depends on the speed with which team members adopt new ways of cooperating. Gaining or losing team members change team dynamics. Learning new processes challenges productivity. Virtual and asynchronous teams are challenged to share information in a timely manner, and team members need to sustain a sense of belonging despite infrequent contact. And while changes continue within organizations, the beat of change in the marketplace continues to pick up without regard for whether leaders and teams are keeping up. So perhaps it’s not as easy (or as fun!) as line dancing, but you get the idea.

And Now The Moonwalk: Are You Ready For Cultural Transformation?

The first logical question is, "Where do I start?"

Start with understanding where you are. There are many tangible and intangible dimensions of culture to interpret, and many ways to diagnose cultural issues. The Johnson and Scholes cultural web model[3], for example, outlines 6 components of culture to assess and analyze: stories, rituals and routines, symbols, organizational structure, control systems, and power structures. Each of these components provides a different perspective of your organization, and all contribute to a holistic view of your culture.

Another approach is to explore your employees’ experience of your culture.

The source and the fuel for cultural transformation are your team members, and the quality of their relationship with the company is the leading indicator of the success (or failure) of your initiatives. Organizational expert Denise Rousseau coined the phrase "psychological contract" to describe the invisible, informal arrangements, mutual beliefs, common ground, and perceptions between two parties, such as your employees and the company (or leadership).

Knowing how your employees feel about coming to work each day is the most basic and yet the most profound level of information about your culture. The Barrett Cultural Values Assessment evaluates employees’ perception of alignment between their needs and the current culture. It provides a view into the hearts and minds of your employees as it helps identify common ground, alignment gaps, and drivers of performance and/or dysfunction. Transformation begins in and depends on the hearts and minds of your teams, and knowing what needs to happen to align and engage your employees is fundamental to a successful journey.

Ultimately, it’s challenging to really understand your own corporate and team cultures. Much of what supports a culture is hidden—not just from sight, but often from our own perception. Albert Einstein is one of many people who’ve written something along the lines of "What does a fish know about the water in which he swims?" It’s just natural that the more we’re immersed in a culture, the less aware we become of the environment we’ve created. When it comes to clearly seeing your culture, consider bringing in fresh eyes and a neutral party to help you develop a comprehensive view of your culture’s strengths and challenges.

Then What?

Equipped with a clear understanding of the current state and the shared vision of the future state, transformation calls for reevaluating the key dimensions of your culture through the lens of your future vision. Leaders will need to question whether their organizational structures or current state of values alignment (or any other cultural facet) will support them in manifesting their vision. The clarity of that lens—the vision of the future—determines the precision with which potential strategies or business models can be evaluated.

Culture Transformation As A Moonwalk

The idea of beginning a cultural transformation can be equal parts inspiring and intimidating. As the Harvard Business Review article mentions, the journey is unpredictable, experimental, and high-risk. I recently watched a documentary honoring the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, and I was struck by the similarities between the Apollo 11 mission and the journey our clients are on as they do the work of cultural transformation [4]. I went through a mental checklist—Bold vision? Check. Co-creating pathways to get to where they’ve never been? Check. Reexamining their beliefs about constraints and possibilities? Check. Dramatic and high-risk steps to lead forward to a reinvented future? Check.

Are you and your company shooting for the moon? If the answer is yes, and the marketplace is signaling that you need to work boldly across and throughout your organization to meet tomorrow’s challenges, cultural transformation (aka the moonwalk approach) is probably in your future. If your goals are more specific and tactical, more about implementing a change, cultural or otherwise, get ready to line dance.

Whether you’re changing or transforming your culture, some leadership imperatives are the same. Create an environment in which purpose and meaning remain clear, and be prepared to support your teams as they integrate new ways of being and new ways of working. A good place to start is to ask yourself if what you need to accomplish is a cultural transformation or cultural change and proceed accordingly.

L&D leaders need innovative, high-performing teams to meet today’s challenges. You need a high-performing team of pros with abundant creativity and a drive to innovate. The solution? Culture change. Download the eBook Secrets Of Effective L&D Leaders: Innovation, Embracing Change, And Cultural Transformation and find out more.


[1] We Still Don’t Know the Difference Between Change and Transformation

[2] What Is Line Dancing?

[3] Gerry Johnson et al., Exploring Strategy: Text and Cases. Pearson; 11th edition, February 20, 2017

[4] Apollo 11

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