5 Types Of Organizational Culture Transformation Approaches: Which Is Right For Your Org?

5 Types Of Organizational Culture Transformation Approaches: Which Is Right For Your Org?
Katherine Canales/SweetRush
Summary: In organizational culture transformation, one size does not fit all. In this insightful article, Ashley Munday details 5 different approaches to the journey of transformation. Which one is right for you depends on your leadership, your team, and the specific challenges you face.

Organizational Culture Transformation Best Practices

I got stuck on the tarmac at LAX for three-and-a-half hours a couple of weeks ago. One of the airline's pilots was sitting next to me, being on his last legs to his home city. We got to chat about our work. He said that one of the mistakes many junior pilots make—as well as some legacy pilots—is that they think they need to handle things on their own. He said that one of the best things he’s learned when things are challenging is to “expand your team.” He involves the control tower, in-flight team, and other team members on the ground. I think that’s great advice for all of us. When approaching organizational culture transformation, you will need to expand your team and get the right players involved. However, one size doesn’t fit all. Finding the right approach and the right team to facilitate your transformation is critical. In this article, I identify 5 approaches. They are all good, but depending on the needs of your organization—and the receptivity of your leaders and employees—applying the right tack is essential, whereas the wrong choice can create more resistance than positive impact. No matter the approach, there are some important fundamental assumptions about how I view the work of organizational cultural transformation:

Transforming Culture In Larger Organizations
Learn how to help implement cultural transformation in your organization.

Organizations As Mechanical Systems

Historically, organizations have been viewed as mechanical systems. The mechanical view says that if we optimize our procedures, track with market needs, eliminate inefficiencies, and give high performers more money, we should succeed. But, organizations are made up of human beings—and humans just don’t fit in neat and tidy boxes.

Human Motivation

The common view has been that people are motivated by money, and when we give them money and clear instructions, they will comply. This is true for mechanical skills, but even then, only to a point. Research shows that when people have jobs that involve some kind of cognitive skill, offering bonuses for higher performance can actually lead to poorer performance. We have also learned that people tend to perform better when they have choice and autonomy in how they accomplish their work.1 Humans are meaning-making creatures: We love to make sense of our world. Our motivation is tied to what we believe is important. These are our values. Sure, we value a lot of things, but the things that spark true inspiration and motivation are our core values. Connecting to true inspiration and motivation is what connects to the elusive “employee engagement scores.” These are the drivers that make the difference between an employee who is actively eroding your culture and those who use their discretionary energy to better the organization.

Living Systems

I approach my work through the lens of living systems. Each organization, like each person, is unique. There are patterns we can be aware of, but each organization has its own ways of adapting to internal and external conditions. They are learned and ingrained over time and they are unique to each organization. Living systems are naturally collaborative. Cells bond and collaborate to create humans. People collaborate to create teams. Teams collaborate to support organizations. And collaboration is mutually beneficial. Living systems are always evolving. Any change to an individual or a part of a system has an impact on the whole system.

Getting Started With Organizational Culture Transformation

So, this might sound big and lofty, but how does all this relate to transforming the dysfunction or up-leveling the performance of your organization? It means that cultural transformation is a science and an art. We need a baseline measurement and a shared plan to get started, but once we start, we will learn more about the organizational patterns and adapt the plan as we go. You may have heard people refer to organizational culture transformation as a journey. A journey is different than a trip; a trip has set start and end points, and usually a clear mode of how to get between them. A journey has the connotation of an odyssey. It is a quest in which you may encounter unknown challenges and fortunes, but if you stay on the path with clear intention, a good strategy, and a strong team, you may prevail.

5 Key Approaches To Organizational Culture Transformation

1. Leadership Journeys

Kees Kruythoff, the former CEO of Unilever Brazil, viewed himself in the archetype of an adventurer during their cultural transformation. Harvard professors Kegan and Lahey calls this a self-transforming mind, seeing all of life as an adventure and each obstacle as providing an opportunity to transform [2]. Similarly, Richard Barrett, former Values Coordinator at the World Bank, writes that “organizational transformation begins with the personal transformation of its leaders.” Leaders today need highly developed competencies in collaboration, empathy, intuition, and rapid decision-making. These are not the skills of middle managers focused on execution—and they are not developed in most business schools. The best leaders today work with transformational coaches and facilitators to guide them through the inner journey of leading organizations. Leading organizations is not for the faint of heart. It requires an unwavering commitment to the vision, while continually adapting to change. It requires a deep knowledge of self and a willingness to up-level around your own reactiveness and personal mastery. This could work for you if some of your executive leaders are fully committed to personal mastery, and others agree in theory but don’t have the training or competencies needed today. You could engage two facilitators/coaches experienced in designing transformational leadership journeys.

2. Top-Team Alignment

When high-performing top teams work collaboratively, they achieve the best results for the organization. Too many top teams function as sole business owners reporting out performance metrics that align only with the strategy, not with other teams around them. This goes back to the mechanical model of organizational management. Organizations today are being asked to create solutions the world has never seen before—at exponential rates. There’s an up-leveling that needs to happen with top teams in order to function well under these demands. Organizations need a clear and powerful vision and mission/purpose that span across and integrate teams, with everyone moving in the same direction. They should strike a chord, hit you in the gut. They should be meaningful and relevant. Every member of your executive team should be reinforcing them in their communications to their teams. You need shared values that have personal and professional meaning to each member of your top team. This requires time together for reflection.You should see one another as key team members steering a ship together. You need to know one another, your drivers, and your challenges. You don’t need to be best friends, but respect and collaboration should be paramount. This could work for you if your vision, mission, purpose, or values are stale and old, or if they don’t hold relevance today. This is also the right approach if your executive team is not working as a high-performing integrated and aligned team versus just being a group of individual owners of business units.

You could engage two facilitators skilled in guiding mission, vision, values, and top-team development.

3. Cultural Development Plan

A cultural development plan begins with a baseline measurement. You need to know where you are and how your initiatives impact the culture over time.

  • The culture plan should be developed in alignment with the organizational strategy. What kind of culture do you need to deliver on your strategic goals?
  • The culture plan should be owned at the executive level with support from a culture or HR team. A kiss of death of a culture plan is to believe it is a function solely within HR. It needs to be—and be seen as—a high priority.
  • Pick three to five key areas to focus on with clear, measurable objectives. Make clear assignments of the tactics. Know who owns what and set regular times to measure and collect feedback on progress.
  • Communicate about the key initiatives weekly. Make sure someone owns culture communications.
  • Involve people throughout the organization. Remember that people are meaning-making creatures. Give them time to make sense of the vision, values, and desired culture. Involve them in creating solutions and respond to feedback. All of this builds invaluable trust.
  • Celebrate quick wins and communicate progress toward stretch goals that take longer to achieve. Reward and recognize when people do things right. Remember social contagion? The positive vibes and gratitude spread quickly when they’re sincere.

This could work for you if your top team is aligned and committed to implementing whole systems change. People want to hear from two people in charge: the senior-most person in the organization and their own manager. You need the commitment of your CEO to truly gain traction with a culture plan. You also need the infrastructure and commitment to involve people at all levels. This doesn’t happen overnight, but small steps with genuine commitment create engagement.

You could engage a team experienced with measuring culture, facilitating the development of a culture plan, and working with top teams, HR, and communications. Experience developing cultural ambassador programs is a bonus!

4. Workflow Transformation Interaction Mapping

One of our publicly traded clients shared that, while their performance was high, they had horrendous attrition rates. A study by Boston Consulting Group identified that their employees were working at 150–200% capacity. HR was committed to providing the right resources if they were identified, but leaders weren’t coming forward to ask for resources. The Chief Human Resources Officer was at a loss about what led to the culture of overdrive. In the employee engagement survey, one metric stood out: there was confusion about workload prioritization. We brought in a team that specialized in workflow transformation based on the work of Dr. Fernando Flores, who is recognized as a leader in the world of business process design, coaching, innovation, cognition, and education. The work is all about training people to be impeccable in their agreements, which starts with a thorough negotiation, truly considering the implications of each decision, and ends with a review of how the process and execution went. If people are doing it well, they clearly stand up for what is reasonable in their normal workflow and negotiate what is reasonable to accomplish. We asked the committee charged with alleviating this issue to identify three teams for us to interview for pilot intervention. After interviewing these teams’ leaders, we found a leader committed to doing things differently and a team that could commit to participating in five half-day sessions. Also, in the process, we identified heightened stress between two teams and ended up inviting both teams to work together on the interaction mapping.

We brought the leaders of these two teams together to align them with the process and to ensure their commitment. Over the five days, the two teams went from seeing one another as adversaries to getting their work done and seeing each other as one team working on a collective issue. In addition to learning to negotiate better agreements, we brought in an expert in interaction mapping. This is a process in which groups map every interaction between various teams and across an organization. In the process, the reason for the interaction was identified along with the output or outcome. In order to be put on the map, both groups had to agree that it was true and together identified where the disruptions, dysfunctions, or lack of process occurred. Additionally, we conducted a team values assessment for the original team that was selected. While they viewed themselves quite positively, it was a shock for them to learn that they were viewed by others quite negatively, and often seen as bullies. As a result of the intervention, the two teams are working much more effectively together. The team that was acting as, or was perceived to be, bullies realized that it was a reflection of their own drive to do things well, as well as unmanaged stress. Their leaders committed to coaching them to better manage stress and to help them better resolve issues. This could work for you if workload prioritization is an issue or if there is a lack of clarity or stress between teams that depend on one another to deliver on their responsibilities. You could engage a team experienced with workload transformation, the Fernando Flores agreement process, and interaction mapping. In the case of this client, we had three consultants in all team sessions, which required all three to work with the dynamics in the room.

5. Emergent Design And Prototyping

Many of you may be familiar with IDEO, famous for helping teams to spur innovation. They popularized design thinking, a process for ideation and rapid prototyping focused on human-centered design. In short, it’s designing for the people you are serving. So often, we assume that we know what others need or want. Turns out, we’re not always right. Good design thinking is about truly getting to know those we serve, showing up, asking questions, and paying attention. There are a number of emergent group processes being used by organizational culture transformation consultants today, beyond design thinking. Emergent group process means tapping the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of the collective to create something truly new. Not one of us holds the answer, and if we are going to iterate faster and create things the world has never seen before, we need to do things differently than we’ve always done them.

MIT professor and organizational consultant Otto Scharmer has popularized Theory U. It’s a methodology to bring together very different perspectives and expertise to create new solutions. Often, people with deep expertise find cross-functional collaboration challenging. It’s like speaking different languages. Theory U provides a metaphorical container to guide people with divergent perspectives into creating collective solutions. In systems theory, it’s believed that in order to effectively create transformation within a system, you need all parts of the system represented. So, if you are trying to create a better way of working among several cross-functional teams, you need at least one person from each of those teams involved in creating the solution.

This could work for you if you need breakthrough innovation, are stuck at an organizational level, or have an intractable issue. You could engage a team experienced with design thinking, Theory U, or whole systems facilitation. The best facilitators are strong and sensitive. They know when to hold strong boundaries, sense when individuals are feeling disconnected from the group, and know when to push the group.

Finding The Right Organizational Culture Transformation Facilitation Team

No matter which approach you take, when selecting your facilitation team, make sure that their process makes good sense to you. Ask them to walk you through the process step by step and share examples from their experiences with clients. Ask about how they navigated challenging dynamics and about the outcomes. Lastly, trust your gut! As I’ve mentioned several times, organizational culture transformation is a journey. Considering that, who would you trust on a journey? This is more than a car trip across town. You also want facilitators from outside of your organization. Seeing dynamics often requires having an outside perspective, and addressing those dynamics is best coming from someone from the outside. As you begin your path to cultural transformation, first expand your team to align your vision and select the right partners. Best wishes on the journey. If you are looking to further delve into the different methods of organizational culture transformation, you can download the eBook Transforming Culture In Larger Organizations to learn how to implement cultural transformation in your organization!


[1] RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

[2] Kegan & Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Harvard Business Press, 2009

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