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Culture Change

How Long?

Chris Harrison

June 5, 2024

How long does organisational culture change take? I am often asked that question, and I choose to answer empirically. After a decade of coaching this in companies, I have plenty of evidence.

Jamaicans often say, ‘Dese tings take time.’ By which they mean that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. And culture transformation does take time.

Lasting change requires the establishment of new behaviours that make sense to employees and have a positive impact on customers. These cannot be prescribed, which is why company value statements are generally unhelpful in this process. Instead, they must be learned.

The best way to get people learning is to give them tasks while coaching them to try different ways of doing them. Working in a multi-disciplinary team, for example. Or letting junior employees lead with their ideas. Or welcoming everyone to the meeting and setting the scene properly before diving into the to-do list. Or agreeing not to use email to see whether other communication channels encourage easier collaboration. Little things; done often.

This ‘do and learn’ method of behaviour change is not new. It’s how we learn as children and how we teach our children. It’s hard-wired into our brains, which is why activating it works better than a mean email from the CFO.

The time spent trying out new ways of work need not be time wasted. I coach the idea of taking initiatives out of the boss’ in-tray and getting other people to help. The big-ticket items that lie around point 10 on a leader’s to-do list and never seem to move.

During our programmes I’ve witnessed factories repurposed to run on renewable energy. Marketing capabilities reinvented. Customer experiences redesigned and financial bureaucracies streamlined. I’ve also seen office parking reorganised more fairly and calm spaces set aside for employee lunches. Big things and little things. All were created by employees who never thought they had permission to make such contributions.

Over time, these employees come to realise that certain behaviours make work easier and better. We can then consolidate them into the ‘signature behaviours’ of the organisation. We hire for them, train to enhance them and even rate them during annual appraisals.

But back to the original question. Transforming a culture depends on how long it took you to build the culture you have - the one that needs to change. Empirically I’d say that for every ten years of existing culture, your employees will need a year to work through meaningful improvements.

So, in the words of the 1974 hit by Ace: “How long has this been going on?”