What does it take to bring about organisational culture change?

How do we move from shared purpose, ambition and values, to identify and describe the behaviours and ways of working that best support them?

An organization’s culture comprises an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions (Steve Denning)

Why would we want to change it?

We have big challenges. Big ambitions. The conditions around us are ever-changing. We need to do things differently to achieve our goals.

We have a shared purpose and a vision for our work together, but old ways of working won’t get us to where we want to be.

What are the leadership behaviours that will help to take us in the right direction? In GM Moving, we describe these in our pointers for leadership practice, and there is plenty written talked about, shared and discussed about collaborative leadership, system leadership and 21st century public servant leadership.


In Greater Manchester more widely, we are on a journey to move from Principles to Practice. But this isn’t easy. It doesn’t happen by magic. We have got decades of leadership approaches and ways of working to turn on their head.


Now we have determined our shared goal, values and principles, conversations about culture and behaviours are important. How can we work to our values, if we don’t talk about the leadership behaviours that might help and hinder on the journey?

These can’t be a top down dictat. Otherwise they will be ignored, rejected or resented. They need to emerge out of our work, as we explore together.


What does it take to change culture and behaviour?

Steven Denning says that the most fruitful success strategy is to begin with leadership tools, including a vision or story of the future, cement the change in place with management tools, such as role definitions, measurement and control systems, and use the pure power tools of coercion and punishments as a last resort, when all else fails“ (Steve Denning)


He continues…”frequent mistakes in trying to change culture include:

  • Overuse of the power tools of coercion and underuse of leadership tools.
  • Beginning with a vision or story, but failing to put in place the management tools that will cement the behavioral changes in place.
  • Beginning with power tools even before a clear vision or story of the future is in place.”

Exploring some of these tools could be helpful. I’m not sure that we are consciously using all possible leadership and management tools. Equally, there are some tools here, that I don’t like the sound of.. but it’s worth a conversation!

What matters and helps during the transition period between where we start and where we are aiming to end up?

The saying goes, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see‘.

Be a role model. This doesn’t mean to say you need to have all the answers. Talk about how you are trying. What you are discovering. What you are struggling with along the way. You don’t need to be the expert. In fact, experts can feel intimidating, challenging or out of reach.

Find diverse roles models and ask them to share their knowledge, experience and understanding. Get to know them. Ask questions, be curious. Ask them to share the tough stuff aswell as describing how they lead in the way that they do. Invite them in to speak about the ‘how’ more than the ‘what.


Find and share explanations, steps, ingredients, drivers of change and examples. They are so helpful. Look for shared learning and experiences of others who are on a journey to do things differently. It doesn’t matter if they are working in a different place or on a different agenda.

This can be even more helpful as it gives us a sense of perspective; especially if the challenges they have are bigger and more complex than ours! There are always parallels and shared experiences if we look for them.

If we are genuinely breaking new ground, and there are no examples from elsewhere, then metaphors or visioning can help.

I find it helpful to explore questions like ‘imagine a world where……what would it take to do this? what might help us to get there? what might get in the way?

Don’t force people to see the world through our eyes.

Enable people to find their way to lead, so long as they are helping to move us closer to the goal, and are working in ways that are true to the shared values.


Create the conditions that enable people to test, learn, experiment and fail in their leadership approaches, without being afraid of the consequences.


Notice the small changes that are indications of progress. 

This includes finding ways to identify, capture and evidence change as it happens, shine a light on it, share it and invite others to join in. If new ways of working are created by one person, celebrate them and reward them. But make it explicit that others are encouraged to join in and work like that too. Great ways of working need to spread and be owned by everyone.


What gets in the way, and when it does, what can we do?

It can feel like we’re failing, until we get ‘there’. It is normal to feel anxious. Especially when we notice ways of working that don’t help, or align or even worse, seem to be taking us backwards. It’s too easy to lose our nerve and revert back to old ways of working. A few months ago, I crowdsourced some great insight and advice on how we can hold our nerve, and everyone else’s when doing things differently. I read it often!

If we don’t create safe space to talk about the journey, share our fears and anxieties and support each other through change, it will feel tough and we are likely to give up. Honesty is important, with boundaries around who we share with, when and how. We need people to feel safe and confident to experiment.

We need to understand before we try to make others understand our point of view. There will be underlying reasons for what’s going on, when people may appear to be losing their nerve or pulling in the opposite direction. There could be a lack of understanding or confidence. They could be getting stuck. There could be internal or external pressures that are driving behaviours. We need to ask, and listen first, before we jump in and criticise or challenge. Another really helpful crowdsourced piece is on what to do when we are feeling stuck. Again, I go back to it often, and I recognise examples from it almost daily, in my work.


Despite all this, we should definitely have the difficult conversation, when the time is right. There are always ways to find appreciative, supportive questions to make an observation, open up the dialogue and explore what is going on. Having challenging conversations is something that most of us struggle with, but if we are prepared to go there, it can be where the magic happens and there is learning all round.


Meaningful culture change takes time, and the impact on ‘results’ in terms of data and outcomes might not come quickly enough for some. First of all we need to make sure we are measuring what matters. Because not all that counts can be counted. We recognise this.

So we need to find new ways to understand, notice and evaluate the change that we are seeking.  Our GM Moving process evaluation team are helping us to identify the drivers of change that are conducive to our shared ambition.

Their realist evaluation approach enables us to understand change in a complex system. It enables us to describe, notice and evaluate the extent to which our approaches, ways of working and mindsets are becoming embedded and helping to bring about positive change, and to what extent we are pulling the right levers for change.

The learning from this is being shared in real time, and we are developing novel ways to turn it into leadership development and communications support materials too. This will help the learning to continue to drive positive change in an upwards spiral.


(Source: Substance Consortia with Sheffield Hallam University)

Rest, Restore, Reflect

Finally, on a personal level, this can all feel big, tough and complex work. We need to take care of ourselves, rest and restore if we are going to maintain our resilience as leaders.

It is entirely possible to simplify what is complex, and find a way to start where we are, and do what we can. No matter where we are in the system, we have a leadership role to play. We can influence change in small ways that make a big difference, and we don’t have to be an expert.

If we think, talk and reflect on how we are working, and support others to do the same, we’ll make progress and learn together.


We also need to stop every now and then. Rest, restore, then reflect on where we have come from. If we are always looking forwards, we won’t see how far we have already travelled together and we will lose heart. Together, we can.