4 tips for changing company culture by focusing on action over structure

Don’t think you can change your organisation’s culture by changing the organisational chart. Action, not structure, changes culture.

You might need to change the org chart to support how you change your work, but always make organisational change secondary to the genuine change, which focuses on action.

In my career, I’ve endured more reorganisations of a newsroom or a whole media company than I can remember. Whatever the purpose of the reorg and however much planning and work we put into it, I never saw a reorg bring fundamental change.

But I’ve seen changes in how we worked drive amazing change.

When I came to the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 2008, I wanted the newsroom to use Twitter and other social media effectively in news gathering and promoting our coverage.

The newsroom structure wasn’t set up for using social media, but I didn’t start there. I started by changing how we worked. I talked and blogged about my own Twitter use and insisted that staff members start using Twitter and trained them in how to use it (though I’d been using it less than a year myself).

The organisational change was a small change as part of all that work: I moved Jamie Kelly from an editing position to be the staff's social media guide. Jamie did a great job in leading and guiding the staff in social media use, but that simple structural change wasn’t as important as the change in how we were working.

I also wanted our news staff to start providing live coverage of news events. We did that strictly by changing how we worked: We provided training in live coverage. We assigned reporters and columnists who were covering events and breaking news to live blog. As editor, I pitched in by leading occasional live chats with the community.

We didn’t change the structure at all, but the changes in how we worked drove significant culture change.

A later company-wide effort focused heavily on structure, throwing out the entire org chart, and creating new units in an effort to separate content-gathering operations from the operations that published various print, broadcast, and digital products.

The strong focus on changing the organisation didn’t do enough to change the whole culture. A consultant’s report several months later noted how the cultural default settings of the organisation were thwarting the new structure, with different parts of the content team still concentrating on specific products.

Digital First Media’s newsrooms in Connecticut made a more effective organisational change by focusing on changes we were making in the work.

A breaking news team formed in the reorganisation handles all breaking coverage, starting early in the morning and focusing solely on digital platforms. A print production hub has taken over design and pagination responsibilities for the newsrooms in Connecticut as well as others in the Northeast.

The structural changes are huge, but they will only succeed by supporting changes in how we work. Editors and reporters in the newsroom are focusing less on print duties and more on digital coverage; the breaking news team has no print responsibilities.

If you’re planning structural changes, be sure you tie those changes to new ways of working:

  1. Don’t get bogged down in the reorg. Move swiftly, or cultural inertia will seriously hinder your efforts to make meaningful change in how you work.

  2. In explaining and implementing the changes, focus on changing what people do. It’s way more important than chain of command or organisational silos.

  3. Consider changing the work first and letting the structural changes follow. The work should come first and organisational changes that support changes in the work make more sense. People will see that you’re not just tinkering with the org chart.

  4. Assess early and often how you’re changing the work. If the work’s not changing, work on fixing that, not on making more changes to the org chart.

About Steve Buttry

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