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  • Writer's picturedragonfish

Culture & Transformation: Human-Powered System Change

“Culture doesn't just change because we want it to. It changes as we transform to reflect the realities of how people work together everyday.”

Whilst culture is being prioritised and measured more closely – people still have very different views of what it is and whether you can direct it or not. Business leaders’ biggest misperception about culture is that it’s too ethereal and “fluffy” to make a difference.

But based on our experience, if it’s managed well, culture is a key means of creating and enabling sustainable transformation, along with foundational elements like broad-based communication, employee engagement, and leadership alignment.

A group of adventurers on top of a cliff against a dusk backdrop

The landscape

Leaders are faced with a raft of complex change ‘dynamics’ all happening at once…

  1. Talent shortages and salary pressures affecting growth

  2. Accelerated digital transformation and automation

  3. Driving impactful and realistic sustainability agenda

  4. Long and short term performance tensions

Disruption drives change on every front, uncertainty is now expected and complexity is compounding. It’s out of our control; what is in our control is the way we respond to it as organisations and as leaders.

These challenges are galvanising leaders, and transformation is becoming more crucial to survival and success.

A hand reaching out from beneath the ocean, holding a sparkler to light the darkness

Ensuring successful transformation

Culture is the key to successful transformation; provided an organisation has the basics right, it can maximise its culture capabilities to ensure a successful transformation.

Changing mindsets to drive transformation

Based on the current climate, top leaders agree it’s time to change mindsets within their organisation. It’s one of the most challenging, but also most pressing, tasks for aiming to create a high-performing organisation.

One of the greatest mindset changes required is the move from planning to experimentation. “CEO’s need to be prepared to relinquish control to be enablers of true transformation,” says Monica Federico, Executive Mindset Coach.

One key way an organisation can trigger these mindset shifts is by shaping and sharing a consistent and compelling transformation story with its people – therefore, having compelling comms and a clear engagement plan is critical.

Human-Powered ‘System’ Change

Requires organisations to think holistically about the culture ecosystem and how the constituent parts work both independently and in harmony as a system to support transformation:

Dragonfish's 'How Culture Fuels Performance' model: a segmented triangle showing how the key elements of culture interconnect
Dragonfish's 'How Culture Fuels Performance' model

One way to do this is to ensure everyone is on the same page about what the transformation will mean for them, and the role they have to play in influencing it, especially through the lens of those cultural components.

As such, leaders need to take the time to help their people understand the impact of the change and consider embedding transformation and culture into everyday business-as-usual processes. These two things both need to be happening, and not at the detriment of each other.. Furthermore, the WHY needs to be really clear for people to avoid disconnect between the transformation and the day-to-day ticking over of the business.

Mobilising your people to own transformation

Truly including your people in the transformation means going beyond setting expectations. It means empowering your people; engaging widely with teams and enabling them to share their voice, and be heard and valued through the process – to be a part of shaping the transformation.

Of course, don’t overwhelm your frontline workers with all the intricacies of the transformation, but enable them to have an impact and recognise the transformation as something that is ownable.

Again, it’s here that embedding the elements of transformation into BAU will help employees understand the micro level of transformation and make it tangible.

You need to bring people on the journey; you’re not doing it to people, you’re doing it with them. Distribute that sense of ownership to generate buy-in and inspiration from your teams.

Of course, you need to be aligned as a leadership team; otherwise, “if there is no one single point of clarification as to the WHY powering the transformation, then when more people are involved and layers start to build, things will become cloudy,” former Head of Operations for Nobilis Care Group, Chris Ward, warns. Which brings us to our final point.

Leaders should connect to the transformation personally and understand what it means for them. Self reflection is critical from a personal perspective and holding ourselves and fellow leaders accountable. The transformation needs to feel authentic, otherwise your people won’t buy into it.

Setting up for success

As mentioned previously, alignment and buy-in needs to start at the top, for the transformation of an organisation to feel genuine for its people. Leaders need to sell the transformation journey to the rest of the business.

Leaders should seek to understand the wider strategy; feeling empowered to ask and challenge the strategy so that they are able to truly get behind it and lead from the front for the whole org. Leaders need to take the time to understand and invest. Doing better starts with being better.

It’s often easier starting with the end in mind: consider the final destination and work backwards. Ensure the transformation will be meaningful and valid for the market you’re operating in.

Most importantly, be human, and acknowledge that change is sometimes hard.

Develop, align, and support leaders

Given the importance of including your people in the change process, it’s imperative to enable and equip managers and leaders to translate the transformation for their teams. In successful transformations, employees in every role, especially at lower levels of the organisation, tend to be more engaged.

The challenge for leaders is to manage the rest of the triangle, they are instrumental to success; leaders’ self-evaluations can play a crucial role here: understanding leadership competencies and emotional intelligence can make the difference. This could be done via 360 reviews at the beginning of a big change programme to enable us to start with clarity as a leadership team as to where they all are individually, including strengths, gaps, and opportunities. As leaders, it’s vital they act as a team and as individuals in a way they would expect their people to act and behave.

Finally, it’s vital to understand that managers fall within this bracket and also need support – they shape the everyday experience people have, they are the voice of change at a local level.

“Culture is the foundation for future innovation. Leadership's role is to build the foundation” – Brian Chesky – Airbnb CEO.

The words 'what is your story' illumianted in neon lights in a window pane


Change is constant; it can appear daunting, but it can also offer a multitude of opportunities. Culture is an asset that can offer the thread of stability and ensure a successful transformation when harnessed.

Both change and culture are constant, then. As leaders, we can either be reactive and try to fix it, or we can intentionally and actively shape it get in touch with Dragonfish to find out how.

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