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Anchoring Transformation: Strategies for Sustaining Identity Through Organizational Evolution


No organizational change is easy. From mergers and acquisitions to downsizing efforts to adopting new strategic directions, change brings uncertainty and disruption that can undermine an established culture. However, culture is often key to an organization's success, engaging employees, and delighting customers. Thus, leaders face the difficult challenge of navigating change while retaining the essential elements of an existing culture.


Today we will explore how leaders can thoughtfully and intentionally manage cultural continuity amid organizational change through a research-grounded, multistep approach focused on understanding, communicating, and reinforcing core cultural values.


Understanding your Culture


The first step to retaining culture through change is understanding what exactly comprises an organization's existing culture. Kotter and Heskett (1992) established a direct link between strong corporate cultures and improved financial performance, finding that cultures shaped around certain core values like adaptability and customer service help fuel business success. To identify these values, leaders must look inward. Mintzberg (2005) recommends using both qualitative and quantitative methods like employee focus groups, surveys, and interviews to gain insights into deeply held beliefs, assumptions, rewards systems, heroes, and cultural norms already present. Taking the time for this discovery process helps surface what Caminiti and Reese (1990) call an organization's "cultural DNA" - the intangible factors which define its unique personality.


At Nationwide Insurance, leaders undertook in-depth cultural research when considering strategic moves like expansion into new markets or lines of business. By surveying over 10,000 employees globally, leadership gained clarity on core ideals around putting member needs first, having a servant's heart in all interactions, and a bias for action in solving problems (Nationwide, 2022). Understanding these as cultural touchpoints anchored later change efforts in a well-defined sense of purpose and identity. For leaders initiating change, dedicating focused time and resources to uncovering organizational cultural DNA builds awareness of what exactly gives a culture its soul - knowledge critical to retaining the essence of culture through transition.


Clearly Communicating Vision and Values


Once a culture audit surfaces defining qualities, leaders must then craft convincing communications aligning any proposed changes to enduring values. Kotter (2012) names "establishing a sense of urgency" and "creating a vision" as key early phases of successful change management. Without clarity on "why change" rooted in a purpose-driven narrative, uncertainty can overwhelm buy-in. At Anthropic, a San Francisco AI safety company, leadership addressed tech talent shortages by expanding globally but communicated the move as fulfilling original cultural ideals around inclusion and giving everyone access to opportunities in AI (Anthropic, 2022). Framing changes in a unifying story centered on shared values helps sustain meaning and minimize disruption to organizational identity.


Leaders should employ multiple targeted forums to cascade consistent messaging on continuity of vision. At Amazon, CEO Andy Jassy hosted live all-hands meetings and Q&As to outline a future-focused strategy emphasizing longstanding priorities like obsession with customers and pioneering technology, allaying potential fears of drifting from founding principles (Heath and Heath, 2022). Regular updates normalizing change as progress keep cultural touchpoints visible during transition. Reinforcing connections between past/present clarifies how changes enable - not detract from - an organization's deepest reasons for being. With compelling communication, cultural anchors outlast operational shifts to guide behavior through transformation.


Embedding Values into Daily Operations


While effective communication launches change aligned to cultural touchstones, embedding values into goal setting and operations sustains alignment over the long term. To translate vision into reality, leaders must shape metrics, processes, and structures supporting desired behaviors (Kotter, 2012). At global retailer Decathlon, leaders crafted recruitment principles, career paths, and compensation focused on their "Sport for All" mission, incentivizing Frontline associates to share the recreational joy of exercise in all customer encounters (Kaplan, 2022). Embedding cultural values into daily decision-making reinforces them as inherent guiding lights - not abstract ideals.


Leaders can establish diverse avenues for living values through change. At telecom company Verizon, a quarterly "Innovation Hackathon" invites cross-team brainstorming competitions judged by impact criteria like sustainability and inclusion, integrating purpose into routine tasks (Verizon, 2022). Create competitive project funding for high-potential culture-led initiatives at Facebook to sustain founder idealism amid expansion (Zuckerberg, 2022). When cultural touchstones shape KPIs, policies, and routines from strategy to frontlines, identity remains vivacious regardless of outer changes to structure or offerings. Embedding ensures continuity inwardly sustains meaning while an organization outwardly evolves roles, markets, or technology. Cultural guardrails persist as internal GPS through transition.


Reinforcing Rituals and Stories


While embedding aims to "show" how values steer daily behaviors, leaders must also overtly "remind" through rituals and stories (Schein, 2017). Rituals like awards ceremonies, service milestones, and mission-focused communications help make invisible values palpable through symbolic celebration. At Starbucks, global "Spiritual Days" honor cultural principles by dedicating select days to staff community, service excellence, and creative problem-solving, keeping emotional connection to purpose accessible for all (Schultz and Yang, 2021). Stories capture accomplishments encapsulating cultural essence for sharing across generations. Founder legend-building at companies like Disney, 3M, and Amazon through collected narratives preserves inspirational visions as heritage motivating sustained relevance (Collins and Porras, 2002).


Rituals and stories should deliberately resurface periodically amid change. Leaders can commission dedicated function (e.g. Internal Communications) to profile culture heroes exemplifying values through transitions as morale boosters. Regathering teams for dedicated affirmation ceremonies after major changes appreciates perseverance through periods testing cultural strength. Embedding an easily-replicated ritual like Google's weekly "TGIF" Q&A sessions gives all employees ongoing access to senior leaders reminding of mission and direction (Schmidt and Rosenberg, 2014). Constant cultural reinforcement sustains clarity and unity through uncertain transitions inevitable across any organization's lifespan. Rituals and stories make ideals part of an emotional fabric granting people ability to feel guided inwardly when changes outwardly alter familiar conditions.


Implementing Culture Continuity Strategies


To fully realize potential of cultural retention strategies, leaders must intentionally operationalize them as a methodical program tailored to transformation realities. Some key steps for implementation include:


  • Audit current culture through surveys/focus groups to understand what really defines organizational personality and soul

  • Align core values to overall change vision through compelling written/verbal communications reinforcing consistency of purpose

  • Incorporate cultural touchpoints like inclusiveness or customer obsession into OKRs, policies, guidelines shaping employee behaviors and decisions daily

  • Launch periodic ritual events like all-hands meetings, awards to overtly celebrate successes exemplifying cultural principles

  • Encourage user-generated stories across channels highlighting cultural victories navigating transition challenges

  • Monitor progress and solicit ongoing employee feedback ensuring retention strategies achieve intended impact on morale, cohesion through change


Focusing particularly on aligning new structures, processes, systems to cultural DNA helps make any transition feel less disruptive to people psychologically as familiar anchors guide navigation. Formalizing continuity initiatives into a sustained program treats culture as strategically vital asset to steward - not assume will persevere passively. Intentional planning sustains core qualities even amid large-scale organizational mutations.


Case Study: Mercer's Culture-Centric Acquisition Integration


As a case study with lessons, global consultancy Mercer faced substantial culture challenges following multiple acquisitions rapidly expanding offerings and geographical footprint. To integrate smoothly while honoring existing culture, Mercer deployed in-depth strategies retaining the essence of their original client-focused “collaborative spirit.”


Leaders first conducted quantitative/qualitative research worldwide to define cultural anchors around teamwork, accountability, and integrity. Next, Mercer named an "Integration Management Office" detailing cross-functional plans embedding these ideals into post-M&A futures. For example, new performance systems incorporated blind 360-degree feedback emphasizing mutual respect as key to collaboratively solving client challenges across specialties.


To communicate unity of vision, executives hosted virtual “All Hands” detailing acquisitions as fulfilling founding principles of serving clients holistically. Senior leaders then championed cultural continuity by volunteering as onboarding coaches articulating enduring qualities. Mercer also launched an “Integration Ambassador” employee resource group sharing transition best practices globally.


By thoughtfully auditing, aligning, communicating, and embedding cultural anchors amid dramatic growth, Mercer achieved remarkably smooth integrations retaining qualities underpinning long-term success. Leaders steadily reinforced familiar North Stars seen guiding Mercer skillfully into a changed but recognizable future (Mercer, 2021). A culture-centric merger integration shows retaining essence possible despite scale of change when deliberately strategized.


Conclusion


As change remains inevitable for organizations amid shifting markets and technologies, culture grows ever more vital as an anchoring force granting stability through transitions. However, retaining culture requires intentional thought leadership navigating change aligned to - not apart from - core qualities making an organization unique. This essay explored how leaders gain clarity on cultural DNA through auditing current assets, communicate unified vision leveraging enduring values, embed principles systematically throughout daily operations, and overtly reinforce identity through rituals and stories. With strategic focus on cultural continuity as change progresses, even large transformations can feel more like smooth evolution than disruption to cohesion and morale. With culture as a nurtured asset, organizations discover opportunity to evolve capabilities while retaining the soul giving them longevity.


References


  • Caminiti, L., & Reese, R. (1990, January). The cultural DNA mystique. Fortune, 121(1), 64-68.

  • Collins, J., & Porras, J. I. (2002). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. HarperBusiness Essentials.

  • Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2022). The power of moments: Why certain experiences have extraordinary impact. Random House.

  • Kaplan, R. (2022). The evolution of strategy at Decathlon. Harvard Business Review, 100(3), 48-53.

  • Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press.

  • Kotter, J. P., & Heskett, J. L. (1992). Corporate culture and performance. Free Press.

  • Mercer. (2021, August 16). Culture continuity through M&A: How Mercer navigated change. https://www.mercer.com/our-thinking/career/culture-continuity-through-ma.html

  • Mintzberg, H. (2005). Developing theory about the development of theory. In K. G. Smith & M. A. Hitt (Eds.), Great minds in management (pp. 355–372). Oxford University Press.

  • Nationwide. (2022, April 11). How Nationwide invests in corporate culture. https://www.nationwide.com/culture/articles/corporate-culture

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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