Is culture one of the main reasons transformation efforts fail? To be sure of that, you’d need to break that down and think about the parts involved in it.

Culture, in many ways, is an output of the day-to-day interactions of the people within an organisation. The language used, the decisions taken, the behaviours exhibited – this adds up to a sense of ‘HOW’ we do things around here. Which, if you are lucky, is aligned to ‘WHAT’ you need to get done, ‘WHERE’ you are headed and ‘WHY’ you are heading there.

The main benefit of a stakeholder map is to get a visual representation of all the people who can influence a project and how they are connected. This is useful when you think about the delivery or management of a project as it helps to create a shared sense of the matrix of individuals who need to contribute. But when we are looking to impact a cultural shift in an organisation, what we’re talking about is influencing ‘HOW’ all the people involved go about their daily interactions – something beyond the control of anyone but the people themselves.

When looking at this, stakeholder maps can sometimes be too linear to capture the complexity involved. More useful are social network maps, which rather than tracking stakeholder relationships, look for social influence points. Most of the time, the pattern of these is different from what you would see in an organisation chart. It’s common to see them made up of people who would not fit into a standard stakeholder map because of their role (perhaps less senior or placed to side on an organisation chart) but who because of the way they interact with other others (maybe they touch multiple processes, or have a considerable influence within the organisation) have a significant impact on ‘HOW’ work gets done.

Bringing these socially connected or influential individuals together in advance of attempting a change in this space and agreeing on a set of non-negotiable behaviours with them that are embedded in the organisation through them is then the first step. These behaviours then radiate out from those individuals and help support the landing of the change to come as it happens across the organisation. It is also vital to note here that all this needs to be consensual – none of us can ever achieve any level of control over another person’s behaviour, nor should we seek to. Instead, we need to create the conditions for the people involved to adapt their behaviour in support of the necessary change.

There are several examples of where I have used this approach to good effect – either at a large scale or in individual teams. The benefit here is that the method is based on creating the conditions for people to choose to adapt their behaviour in line with a change, rather than needing to be coerced or manipulated (something almost all of us instinctively resist). One example is from my work in a large financial services organisation.

This was a UK-based client who was carrying out a fundamental redesign of processes in a central department, attempting to create a change that impacted the whole organisation through a single set of central process owners. If a standard approach to stakeholder mapping had been used, those involved would have been drawn from the area controlling the process and implementation. Looking at this change through the lens of the behaviour change required first, it was apparent that while that group was important – it was the end users (managers across the organisation) who needed to adapt how they firstly interacted with the new process and then used it to deliver improvements to their teams.

To support this, much of the initial work involved bringing this group together and agreeing with them the change in their required behaviour (note the use of the word agreeing, this is a two-way street). Only once that was completed, and a sense of anticipation for the change to come had been built did we then alter the process. Doing things this way around meant that the change was welcomed by those receiving it and adopted much more smoothly – rather than being imposed on them and then subtly resisted until people got used to it.

So, is culture one of the main reasons transformation efforts fail? Perhaps, if viewed as a single item but when broken down into its constituent parts, perhaps it is the failure to reach alignment around a change in terms of language, decisions, and behaviours that look like resistance.

If you liked this, why not try: The difference between change and transformation or I’m rubber, you’re glue

You may also find this post on HBR insightful: Leading Change

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