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Baby Steps...The Key to Shifting Organizational Culture

The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought about progress. - Charles Kettering

Maybe you just started a new job, and you're ready to hit the ground running! Or perhaps you've been with the same institution for a long time.

You value the mission and the work that you do, but you see opportunity to improve the way things are done.

Before you charge into your supervisor's office with a list of ways to do things better, take a step back to be mindful and strategic in your approach. In this month's blog I share some ways to effectively gain buy-in and effect change within your organization, even if you have no formal authority to do so.

1) Take time to understand the culture. Whether you're starting out at a new company, or you've been with the same institution for years, it's critical to understand the culture before you attempt to change it. If you're new to an organization or department/role, I recommend taking up to one year to establish yourself. The time you take to do this depends on the culture of the organization itself. If it's a regimented, bureaucratic organization - take the whole year! Expedite the process if it's an up-and-coming new business or start-up.

Establishing yourself within the organization provides an opportunity for you to showcase your skills, support your colleagues, and contribute to the mission in a meaningful way. In doing so, you earn the trust and respect of your coworkers and develop a working knowledge of the company culture.

Enthusiasm early into a new role is admirable, and that enthusiasm needs to be channeled appropriately in order to effect impactful change.

Invest the time and energy to better understand your organization, its processes, and its people. In doing so, you will be empowered to propose better changes, and you will have had the opportunity to gain buy-in from your new colleagues.

2) Respect institutional history. Every organization is unique, and that includes its history. One of the benefits of taking the time to establish yourself within an organization is that you get to learn about its history. Why are certain policies and procedures in place? Why do specific roles, departments, and programs exist? Why are they valued by staff and/or management? Even if a policy or procedure doesn't make sense to you, try to understand the problem or challenge it was designed to resolve. Approach these questions respectfully and with tact.

As mentioned earlier, government organizations follow a very bureaucratic structure and take longer to make adjustments. There might even be an entire procedure (or a series of procedures and approvals!) in place to make changes. Understand the framework that is in place and work within it. Conversely, a start-up company will have much more flexibility to pivot. Understanding the structural and procedural elements is critical not only to effecting change within an organization, but also in helping you to determine if the organizational culture is a good fit for you long-term.

3) Identify influencers. While it is critical to understand your institution's org chart, keep in mind that there are individuals with tremendous influence who may not possess any formal authority. These individuals are sometimes regarded as "influencers," and they while they may have no formal authority through their title, their relationships with management and decision makers afford them with with is sometimes called "soft" influence.

These are the people who have the ear of those in authority.

They have established themselves within the organization and have earned the trust of key stakeholders. By taking the time to establish yourself in point 1, you are more likely to become an influencer yourself, which positions you to successfully implement change.

That brings us to point 4...

4) Prepare yourself for incremental progress. Now that you've invested the time into understanding your company's culture and hopefully establishing yourself as an influencer, you are ready to make some changes! I always suggest testing the waters with one small change at a time.

Last month I delivered a workshop on effective meetings to a team of scientists at a large government lab. The group was frustrated by how ineffective meetings have been, and were enthusiastic to implement the approaches we discussed in our session. I cautioned the group to start small. Pick one small change that can be made at the next meeting, and leverage its success for more changes. Not everyone in management will share your enthusiasm for new approaches, so you must be strategic in how you suggest and implement them.


If you'd like more support on career growth, organizational culture, or any other areas, please don't hesitate to email me directly here to schedule a free consultation.

Dr. Lori Ana Valentín is an analytical chemist who holds doctorate and master’s degrees in chemistry from Binghamton University as well as a bachelor of science in biochemistry from SUNY Fredonia. She applies her perspective as a scientist to develop unique personal and professional development solutions.


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