12 Steps to Successful Organizational Culture Change

Way back in the Stone Age (otherwise known as 2014), I had the opportunity to listen to Simon Sinek speak about the difficulties of both leadership and organizational culture change at the Hubspot INBOUND Conference.

I was so inspired by his morning keynote I attended a post-talk “ask me anything” session.

During the session, one participant asked about how to lead an organizational culture change in an organization with deep or long-held cultural conflicts.

How to Lead Organizational Culture Change

Simon’s answer?

Very simple: study Alcoholics Anonymous and their famous 12-step process.

When you apply these principals to organizational culture change it is effective because your goal is to change habits. 

Deeply rooted and constantly reinforced organizational habits. 

Interestingly enough, years later, while reading The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg also recommends looking to AA for insight into how to conquer and transform negative habit loops of all kinds.

Amazingly, even without the benefit of scientific research on behavior or habit change, AA got it right.

Part of the beauty lies in the fact that you can interpret and apply the steps based on your organization’s individual needs and environment.

Twelve Steps for Organizational Culture Change

And so I went about my own “translation” of how they apply directly to organizational culture change.

The details will change based on your individual organization, but the goals of each step remain the same.  

Steps One and Two: Acknowledgement and Acceptance

AA Version:

  • Admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Organizational Translation:

  • Both leadership and the team need to accept an organizational culture change is needed. This is often the most difficult part. In order for change to happen everyone must understand why and how the current culture holds the organization back and prevents success.

As the change leader, this puts you in a difficult position.

Be respectful of the resistance. People don’t tend to like change. 

But also present a clear case as to why change is necessary and the mutually beneficial outcome of the change.

What will life look like when this change occurs?

What opportunities will they have which they do not have now?

Step Three: Agreement on the Decision to Change

AA Version:

  • Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Organizational Translation:

  • You need to have 100 percent buy-in from the top. Organizational culture change can be a long and tedious process.  Clearly promote and execute from the top down.

This should not just be an ambiguous commitment either, but a firm plan with structure, timelines, and deliverables—a change roadmap.

Everyone must understand the value of the outcome and the process to get there.  

Steps Four through Seven: Develop a Roadmap

AA Version:

  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Organizational Translation:

  • How do you develop that roadmap? The best places to start is to look at the current culture:
    • What works?
    • What doesn’t?
    • Where are the initial areas for improvement?
    • What obstacles are there for cultural changes?
    • What barriers must be removed to make such a change successful and lasting?

All levels of the organization need to answer these questions. 

This means everyone from leadership to the janitor needs to be part of it.

Do this in a “safe” way.

People need to trust no punishment will result from honesty.

And the more poisoned the culture, the harder it will be to get team members to feel safe.

Leaders can handle this in a variety of ways.

The method chosen depends on how damaged organization-wide trust is.

In some organizations, an anonymous survey is good enough. Or moderation from an outside consultant. But in others, the trust is so diminished even these methods will be greeted with skepticism. 

Working through this obstacle is crucial. You cannot build a new roadmap until every level of the organization has a voice.

Steps Eight and Nine: Rebuild Relationships

AA Version:

  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Organizational Translation:

  • A toxic culture breaks down trust, relationships, community, and overall feeling of “team.”

Acknowledge the breakdown of trust and put a structure in place to restore trust and provide a sense of confidence for team members.

Change must be visible and active both from a leadership and management level.

Leaders must lead within the context of the new cultural doctrine and managers must manager accordingly as well. Organizational, team, and personal goals must reflect the goals of the new culture.

Steps 10 and 11: Be Ready for the Long Haul

AA Version:

  • Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  • Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Organizational Translation:

  • A cultural change isn’t an overnight activity, nor is it a set it and forget about it strategy.

It must be worked on, promoted, adapted, and communicated daily—in everything the organization does: Goals, operations, communications, activities, human resources.

Execute it consistently. Even when it’s not convenient to do so. 

Step 12: Teach

AA Version:

  • Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Organizational Translation:

  • This was one Simon emphasized at the end. Teaching others to change is an important final step in completing the transition. This helps each individual intimately understand how to build the new culture. It also connects them with each other by sharing, mentoring, and leading others to the new cultural vision.

This can take share in a variety of ways in each organization. The important takeaway is that everyone should be part of the growth, change, and evolution.

Organizational Culture Change in Your Organization

Now it’s your turn.

How would you translate the 12 steps for your organizational culture change??

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

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