Learn the Art of Culture Hacking

Deliver effective culture change using simple hacks rather than big transformation efforts.

The new CIO is determined to undo the stuffy, formal culture that inhibits efforts to innovate and share ideas within the IT department. She starts an internal blog to communicate and embody the new culture she wants to create.

The blog’s casual tone and informal content is notably different from prior cultural norms. At first it shocks her team, but the approach works. It starts a conversation about how to behave and what is expected.

Culture hacks are great alternatives that provide small adjustments to the culture for big results

If you ask a group of CIOs what the biggest barrier to change is in their organization, the most common response is almost always culture. In Gartner’s 2018 CIO Survey, 46% of respondents named culture as the biggest barrier to scaling digital transformation. This answer isn’t surprising, but it’s also not very useful. Culture is big, unwieldy and hard to change.

Most CIOs approach culture change with big transformation efforts that are often lumbering and faceless, according to Mary Mesaglio, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.

“Don’t try to change manage your way to a better culture. Culture hacks are great alternatives that provide small adjustments to the culture for big results,” says Mesaglio.

Emotional, immediate, visible, low effort

A culture hack isn’t especially hard to execute. It creates emotional responses quickly and visibly. Culture hacking is effective because emotional change is the lever to enact behavioral change, which is the foundation for cultural change.

A well-designed hack is a master change agent

The key is to exploit a single point where culture is vulnerable to deep change, particularly where employees spend most of their time — processes, projects and meetings.

Imagine you want your culture to be more agile. You could name every project after the benefit you expect it to deliver. Instead of selecting the project team, allow team members to opt in. Hold stand-up meetings with other departments, not just in agile development teams. Cancel meetings that don’t advance the strategy. Rather than prescribe every process step, give people a problem to solve and watch what processes emerge.

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Size matters

You may be wondering if hacks are less effective as a result of being small. Mesaglio says it’s the opposite.

“Accelerate the culture change you seek by being thoughtful about where and how to introduce hacks,” she says. “This will make it real and emotional, as well as more memorable and lasting. A well-designed hack is a master change agent, propelling the desired change from theory to reality.”

The greatest hacks elicit emotional responses from their audience

Culture is not something that is imposed or implemented. It’s a reflection of the actions, attitudes and approaches of the members of an organization. If you change those, you change the culture, not the other way around.

Handy tips

  • Keep your culture hacks small and visceral. The greatest hacks elicit emotional responses from their audience.
  • Design hacks that create visible change quickly and with low effort. Avoid trying to hack big areas, such as overhauling all of your enterprise architecture.
  • Have a plan in place in case the hack backfires.
  • Be clear about the change you seek — or risk a sort of cultural schizophrenia setting in.
  • Don’t ask permission. Ask forgiveness instead.
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Gartner clients can read more in “The Art of Culture Hacking” by Mary MesaglioMore information on digital leadership and culture can be found in the Gartner Featured Insight research collection “Scaling Digital Leadership,” a collection of research that explores the dimensions of leadership that will help CIOs scale — personally and as an organization — in order to produce a sustained return on technology investment.

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