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Managing Cultural Change in an Organization

written by: N Nayab•edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 2/11/2011

Effecting physical change is possible overnight, but effecting cultural stage at a physiological level of the organization is a difficult journey, not accomplished in a single step. Read on for the best ways of managing cultural change in an organization.

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    Managing Cultural Change in an Organization Managing cultural change in an organization ranks among the most important component of change management, and also the most difficult. The effectiveness and permanency of change depends on changing the culture of the organization to incorporate the changed values, and systems. The difficulty stems from the fact that unlike performance standards, culture is not a tangible or measurable value.

    The best approach toward organizational culture change and management is Kurt Levin’s three phase freeze stages of unfreezing-transition-refreezing.

    Image Credit: flickr.com/Luca Masters

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    Defreezing

    The first step in change management is demolishing values and norms as sacrosanct, but which can impede growth or the new direction the entity wishes to take. For instance, implementing Lean or Six Sigma requires a culture of eliminating waste and ensuring standardization, when the existing culture of the company may be to store items for possible future use, and the existing work standards may not incorporate any checks to ensure output of standardized products.

    The defreezing stage requires the management to take concentrated steps to end such habits, first by issuing effective policies, and taking the lead in its implementation. This, for instance, may require developing a policy of destroying waste on the spot, not holding an item not required beyond a fixed number of days, ending the lease on storage centers, and the like.

    The primary challenge in this phase of organizational culture change and management is demolishing zones of comfort that people create and push them out of habits and conventions. Ways of managing cultural change in organization by moving people out of such comfort zones include:

    • Creating a crisis and offering solution outside the accustomed norms as solution
    • Organizational redesign that forces behavioral change
    • Convincing the need for change by putting forth numbers or data as irrefutable proof
    • Organizing behavioral training programs
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    Transition

    Defreezing invariably results in chaos, with old paradigms demolished, and new paradigms yet to take shape. Successful cultural change requires effective change management leadership at this stage, to direct employees to the desired path, and to clear misunderstandings and misconceptions. One key requirement at this phase is effective communication and leaders remaining visible to lead from the front to establish acceptable behaviors and values. The leaders need to inculcate the new values first and then ensure that such values permeate down the workforce.

    Ways to ease the transformation include:

    • Psychological support including coaching and counseling to help people cope with the change
    • Identifying people who refuse to change and make a determined effort to push them to make the first step, which might end their reluctance or resistance
    • Establishing a system of rewards for accepting new values and punishments for clinging on to old values
    • Including facilitators in team meetings as drivers of the new culture
    • Breaking the change requirements into small packages and implementing them one at a time, or incrementally
    • Involving people in the change by providing them with opportunities to imbiber and live the new culture
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    Refreeze

    Cultural change does not remain complete or long lasting unless the changed values and system are “refrozen" or entrenched as the new norm, and accepted by the rank and file. This “refreeze" phase means establishing stability, moving away from the chaos of the transition phase. The change management leadership burns the bridges, making relapses to old values and ideals impossible. For instance, in the change toward a Lean culture, stationery and other material request forms or processes could have a new question "How this new request adds value to the product or service offered."

    Such refreezing techniques include:

    • Using formal rituals to confirm and institutionalize change, incorporating the change to the social fabric
    • Systematic approach to track down old policies and records and destroy them, replacing them with the new standards
    • Providing evidence of the benefits of change
    • Confirming and implementing the policies devised in the defreeze and transition phase
    • Aligning rewards, compensation, and performance evaluations with the new behaviors

    In today’s environment of continuous change, managing cultural change in an organization is a full-time and continuous affair. The phase of “refreeze" may not last long, and at times many even not happen, for no sooner do things stabilize, than developments might force another cultural change.