In the Moment

Taking “Culture change” from buzzword to reality

Erika Bailey

A client of ours is struggling with language. Important words have become buzzwords and seem like jargon now. The words even have some baggage along the way. We’ve talked about vision/ mission so many times. Ugh. Here we go again. One of the tricky words words for them is “culture”.  Over the years it has been used, and reused, and now it’s just tired.  It has lost its punch.

I should start by saying that although I am truly passionate about the culture conversation, I totally get their problem with it. My own husband rolls his eyes at the word (even though his darling wife spends her days toiling with it)  because people have been using the word culture as an escape route for doing real work. Oh no, that’s not a priority. If we just change the culture, then all of this will be better.  Great. Now how do you propose we do that?

Now, this language thing poses a challenge for us at The Moment, as we design sessions and develop long-term culture change work.  Culture really is the right word to use when you want “how we do things around here” to fundamentally change throughout an organization. Any other word is not really what we’re doing. Using a replacement word poses a risk of inauthenticity and a misrepresentation of the work and its intention. For example, we can’t call our work “change management” because we’re not managing change.  We’re activating it.

So, what’s the solution? Simply this: mention culture once, then focus on what matters…your work, your results, and how you plan to get there.

The key issue here is that

you can’t change a culture just by talking about changing a culture.

Does it help to make your goal to align the culture with your goals explicit? Yes!  Is it enough? Nope. Culture is essentially a backward facing phenomenon; we notice it has changed not when we are trying to change it, but when it shifts into something noticeably different than our former experience.  We experience culture change looking back on what was, and comparing that to what now is.  It is the comparison of the two that creates the big reveal. 

So, don’t spend your valuable time thinking up another word for culture. It’s not necessary.  Instead, talk about the larger culture goal a little less.  Talk more about how you’re doing things differently, what’s new, what’s challenging, and how you can solve a problem differently. Talk about what matters, and do so in new ways.  Create new relational patterns. Forge new pathways your new behaviours can follow.  Essentially you’re talking about what is changing culturally, without really mentioning it.

In addition to having great conversations is making use of data: capture baseline and improvement data wherever you can.  This data should be about operational results, and also (if possible) how we do the work together.  Even ethnographic interviews can work for the latter.  The key is not just to have a “sense” that things are changing, but to back it up with some numbers. Thus, culture, goes from being squishy and nebulous to being solid, and supported.

Lastly, tell the story of how the changes happened.  Ideally, take pictures and videos all the way along. There is something very powerful about looking back and seeing how we began, how we shaped a new future, and what we experience now.  Personalizing the documentation and saving actual change artifacts (things people created along the way) can be a moving way to celebrate success, move a struggling change project forward, or engage leadership in understanding what has happened and how.

When your culture has shifted, you’ll have trouble stopping people from talking about it.  The tired old word culture will become everyone’s favourite topic because this time we really did something about it.

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