Executive Summary

This book details the results of in-depth qualitative research, undertaken to identify the major drivers of successful culture change in Australian organisations.

In Great Company

The research was lead by Professor Dexter Dunphy, Distinguished Professor, University of Technology Sydney, in order to answer a series of questions regularly posed by clients of Human Synergistics International:

  • How do organisations transform their cultures?
  • What creates cultural transformation?
  • What is the evidence about what works?

Each year Human Synergistics compiles research referencing organisational culture and leadership behaviour in Australia and New Zealand. Each year the results show little improve­ment in culture change. Staff and leaders consistently report their organisation’s cultures are more defensive than constructive. This finding parallels Turner and Crawford’s (1998) groundbreaking Australian research that showed 67% of change initiatives faltered. While many organisations know how to affect culture change, precious few actually do so. This frus­trating dynamic is described by Pfeffer and Sutton (2000) as the ‘knowing doing gap’.

To determine how and why some organisations succeed in transforming their cultures, Human Synergistics examined a data set of 40 organisations that had not only measured their organisation’s culture using the Organisational Culture Inventory® but had also remeasured it. A small number of these organisations had achieved a quantum change so significant that the term ‘transformation’ could be used to describe it. They shifted their profiles from a predominance of Passive/Aggressive Defensive styles to being dominated by the Constructive styles. Five of these organisations agreed to take part in the study, to determine the drivers of cultural transformation. While sharing the ability to transform their cultures, these organi­sations – Adshel, MasterCard Australia, Balmain Leagues Club, Yarra Valley Water and Lion Nathan - are otherwise very different from each other in terms of their size, industry and corporate strategies.

The research methodology was designed to fully explore what it was about these organ­isations that allowed them to successfully transform themselves, with a particular focus on interviewing CEOs, change agents and selected staff through focus groups.

The research team also reviewed:

  • The rationale for undertaking cultural transformation
  • Each organisation’s mission, philosophy, structures, systems and technology
  • Details of the cultural interventions undertaken and their impact
  • The challenges faced and lessons learnt
  • The impact of the cultural transformation on performance

The research finds that the challenge of changing human behaviour within organisations cannot be underestimated. While the research validates existing knowledge about organisa­tional change and confirms that it is hard to achieve, it also challenges accepted paradigms.

The vital role of leaders in sponsoring change is reinforced. Through the case studies, decisive leadership from the CEO is seen as a prerequisite for transformational change, not an option. In particular, the CEO needs to demonstrate a personal commitment to changing his/her own behaviour and modelling the behavioural styles needed in the new culture. But the CEO can’t work in isolation, the support of the leadership team and internal and external change agents all working together creates a core team that provides the support and high levels of energy needed to maintain the change process.

This core team must clarify the mission, purpose and values of the organisation and ensure everyone understands their role within it. In practice this means creating coherence on a personal level and consistently reinforcing behaviours that support the new culture, not the old one.

The research also reinforces the importance of effective internal communication. Listening to and respecting all staff members are identified as key change management skills. The language of change is also important: creating a common, shared change language within the organisation helps to ensure that everyone attributes the same meaning to change initi­atives. Effective change programs use evocative language, rich in emotional symbolism, to capture the hearts as well as the minds of organisational members and help them make sense of the change taking place.

Change is unlikely to happen all at once

The research finds that transformational change does not follow a distinct or uniform set of phases. The leadership team needs to set the prior­ities for the change program, develop a transformation strategy specific to its organisation and be prepared to alter and adapt that strategy to match changing circumstances.

This uncertainty about the nature of change leads the research team to conclude that those organisations that successfully transform themselves also possess another important attribute – they are willing to take a step into the unknown. They are open to learning new things and have the ability to learn how to learn and to proactively seek out and manage change. This means they learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, emotional confrontation and turbulence.

The case studies also illustrate that moving to a Constructive culture creates more open communication, improved staff motivation and effectiveness, increased initiative taking, greater creativity and innovation, better teamwork and collaboration and happier, more pleasant workplaces. The research strongly suggests that these improvements carry across into improved performance levels.

The research concludes that the key to long-term organisational sustainability lies in developing a capability that allows the organisation to continue to learn and grow. This meta-capability of learning to learn also needs to be present at a personal level within the leader­ship team so that the leaders of the organisation can continue to reflect on and improve their personal behaviour in a way that mirrors that of their desired organisational culture.

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