Culture Change By Small Steps

This blog article has two accompanying articles:  one on positive culture, and another on positive deviance

The Challenge

‘How can we respond to the staff survey in away that helps to promote a culture change in this organization?’


The Need

This 800-1000 people strong engineering organization was previously part of a Government organization. Many attitudes and behaviours persisted from that time. The organization was a classic top-down command and control structure with a strong emphasis on structure and process. It was becoming apparent that to compete in the commercial world the organization needed to become much better at accessing the strengths of all its employees. It needed to become faster, more flexible and more responsive. As an organization, despite changes in ownership, little had really changed in many years. This was not a situation that could continue. While the employees were skilled workers, many of whom had been there all their working lives, the quality of leadership was variable. There was a much greater emphasis on efficient management than on effective leadership. The HR Director knew that the culture needed to change. She wanted to come at it from a complex adaptive system perspective: as she put it, lighting small fires where she could. During the couple of years she had already been with the organization she had built up good credibility with the senior leadership working on issues such as pensions and performance management and was trusted to act with some autonomy.

The parent organization was disappointed with the results of the first staff survey and wanted to see some improvements fast. The HRD spotted the opportunity to address this challenge differently. This was an opportunity to bring more participative, bottom-up development processes into the organization. It was an opportunity to help the organisation in its expressed, but not yet enacted, desire to become more flexible, responsive and innovative: in other words to move from one where change is a hierarchical, top-down, mechanistic process to one where change is more organic, bottom up and emergent. She engaged us to bring in our expertise in these modes of engagement and change and to work in partnership with her to create this shift in culture. 

In addition it was hoped that the activities and outcomes would have a positive effect on the scores on the employee survey when it was re-run in approximately 6 months. To ensure this connection, the process was to focus specifically on communication, coordination and productivity.


The Process

This idea evolved initially into 4 Appreciative Inquiry based days and 3 World Cafe based events. We would be working with groups of up to 30 people at any one time, both to avoid excessive disruption to production and also to keep the process within the permission and influence remit of the HRD. We aimed to touch 10% of the workforce in one location and 50% in the other.

From these events a number of ideas emerged that the front line staff involved were supported to develop into business case arguments. Once the business case was clear, the groups were supported to create short, impactful, presentations outlining their case to a decision-making panel. Three decision-making events were held,  they involved the project teams presenting their business cases for innovation and change to a senior management panel of three who had to hold their decision making discussions in public and give their answers there and then. These events were attended by all those involved in the project groups and were very successful, high-energy events.

We also ran one Simureal event and two celebration events over two locations over a period of a few months.


In designing this process and running these events we pulled on our understanding of: 

  • Organizations as complex adaptive systems
  • Organization as social systems
  • Culture as patterns of interaction, relationship and communication
  • Change through interactions
  • Positivity, positive reinforcement, practical outcomes
  • Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Psychology


The Outcome

 The employee survey was run six months later with good improvements in all the targeted areas. Other observable outcomes were:

  1. 12 active improvement projects, all from the ground up and all focussed on improving work communication, coordination or productivity
  2. A number of staff feeling empowered that they had been heard and had been able to put ideas into action. This experience was counter to the strong organizational story that they couldn’t influence things.
  3. High quality communication between front line staff and the Managing Director and other members of the Senior Management Team, leading to positively changed perception both of managers of staff and vice versa.
  4. An appreciation in the senior team of the value of working in these ways, and a commitment to doing more

By giving people in an organization a different experience of the organization one can begin to shift the perception of the organization. When perceptions shifts so behavior changes in line with the new understanding. Our interventions affected the established patterns of relationship, communication and behavior and so created change. In this way culture change can be encouraged as a system-wide experience of difference rather than as a top-down plan of change.


Appreciating Change Can Help

Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we can help with Engagement and Culture and how we use Appreciative Inquiry, World Cafe and Simureal.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715