Crafting Culture Consciously: Building a Coalition of the Willing

philip horváth
8 min readJun 14, 2024

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“What does this AI stuff you are talking about have to do with our topic of personal responsibility? Are you telling us that it’s going to come take our jobs?”

As a transformational catalyst, my job can be challenging. I sometimes face downright hostility in the room, from crossed arms and angry looks to hecklers. This reaction is understandable. Transformation is scary and often unpleasant, triggering many fears and defensive mechanisms. To transform, we must be willing to step outside ourselves and see ourselves in completely new ways. Sometimes this means letting go of aspects of ourselves that no longer serve us, which can be difficult.

Culture change starts with the individual. Consequently, it’s not surprising many culture initiatives fail.

Why most Culture Initiatives fail

Culture transformation initiatives often fail, with about 70–80% not achieving their goals. The primary reason is the attempt to change culture as a “thing,” a tangible entity that can be checked off on some due diligence list, rather than addressing the underlying interactions between people.

Culture is an epiphenomenon of how individuals work and interact together to create value. It’s about relationships.

Transformation initiatives often fail due to inadequate support, poor communication, and insufficient attention to the human elements of change.

AI as the “new kid on the block”

With the digital workforce quickly becoming a reality enabled by AI, culture is rapidly changing. A new generation accustomed to interacting with AI is entering the workforce. Meanwhile, AI is developing relational capacities that are treacherously seductive.

If web 2.0 and social media were shotguns, relational AI will be a rail gun in its capacity to command our attention — unless we have a strongly developed relational intelligence. And that requires not just change but a cultural transformation.

Unfortunately, organizations often fail to sustain momentum and adequately invest in the transition phase, leading to unsuccessful cultural transformations.

Cultural transformation, like most transformations happens slowly and then suddenly once a breakpoint is reached.

Your superpower: The Coalition of the Willing

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

It is impossible to transform an entire workforce all at once.

The good news is that right now you have people in your organization across all levels of hierarchies, demographics and even psychographics that are ready and willing to create a new culture.

How to Position Your Product for Success | by Bora Savas | Fastlaunch |  Medium
Based on Everett Rogers “Diffusion of Innovations”

As with innovation adoption, a similar distribution curve can be drawn for cultural adoption. Including the chasm of adoption that is key to overcome.

Fortunately, you have those, who are already self-transforming: your cultural innovators.

Innovators already live the new culture. In every organization, there are those who are reading leadership and personal development books, attending webinars and workshops to grow their capacities. They bring what they can to their teams and colleagues and often influence your early adopters.

Early Adopters strive to step up: Early adopters are naturally more open to transformation and eager and willing if you align their aspirations with the innovators. Since they want to be seen for their progress and appreciated as pioneers, they also appreciate badges and certifications.

Empowering Early Adopters to cross the chasm: By training and certifying early adopters and empowering them to train and influence the early majority with new cultural behaviors, you build internal capacity and ensure the transformation is organic and sustainable.

Building and engaging a guiding coalition of early adopters to support and sustain transformation initiatives allows you to overcome resistance, cross the chasm of adoption, and drive successful transformation.

From new Archetype to Measurable Behavior Change

As culture is such an ephemeral thing, we developed a framework at LUMAN to support our clients in strategically crafting culture:

  • Archetypes: Defining the new desired archetype, e.g. “intrapreneur” or “relational employee”
  • Principles: Defining the values and beliefs that this new archetype stands for
  • Stories: Using storytelling to illustrate how this new archetype handles different situations, both successes and failures.
  • Language: Codify linguistic memes that exemplify the new archetype
  • Symbols: Embed key principles in symbols, from logos or mascots to badges and status symbols
  • Rituals: Define measurable behaviors that the new archetype engages in regularly

Culture exists on all levels, from individual to team, from organization to entire national ecosystems. This framework, based on various approaches from anthropology, sociology, and psychology, provides leaders with a simple and pragmatic tool to craft culture.

Setting a New Archetype — Defining the aspiration

Archetypes are “original patterns from which copies are made.” Simple examples are hero and villain, explorer or guide. In order to create an aspirational role, first start by defining the new archetype that you would like to see more of. Similar to when you create innovation and you create a customer persona, bring to life your future employee archetype.

It is key to name the aspirational archetype. In recent years words like “Intrapreneur”, “Innovation Catalyst”, “Culture Champion” or “Change Agent” have been used to designate new desired employee archetypes.

Defining Guiding Principles — Enabling distributed decision making

Establish clear principles made up of values and beliefs associated with the archetype. What do they hold dear? What do they stand for? What do they think is possible or impossible?

Our values and beliefs provide us with guiding principles when we need to make decisions. If employees are clear on the values the company stands for — and truly stands for, not just espouses on posters on the wall — they are enabled to make decisions based on these values and what they believe is important.

A good example is the values of Zappos, which focused on customer happiness. This allowed customer service representatives to make decisions, like taking back returned products, ultimately creating a crowd of fans and paving the way for many other companies, including Amazon. A good example also of how internal culture shapes external brand and consumer behaviors — ultimately through stories of relating.

Promoting the stories of your innovators — making it real through examples

Stories are the programming mechanism of culture. We pay attention to stories more than to data or facts. Our attention is wired for it.

By telling the stories of your innovators that exemplify desired behaviors you begin to familiarize your workforce with these new ways of being. By showing how they are embodying the new archetype, and how they are acting from core principles no matter if they succeed or fail, you open the possibility of new behaviors.

“Children don’t learn table manners from PowerPoint, they learn it from watching mommy and daddy,” as my business partner Tirza Hollenhorst likes to say. The next best thing to direct observation is storytelling. Seeing, hearing and reading stories of how things can be done around here, ultimately serves to make those behaviors the new normal of how things are indeed done around here.

Their stories also serve as powerful employer branding. More so than any campaign about the benefits you offer. Surprise and delight your employees, and they will tell their friends and family about it and spread your memes.

Using Language and Memes to hack behavior — repetition makes it real

I put the ship in leadership” — at LUMAN we use this simple sentence to keep our focus on outcomes, on shipping deliverables. It is just one of a plethora of similar sentences and memes that keep coming up in our meetings serving as shorthand for deeply embedded cultural principles.

Establishing key phrases and using consistent language to reinforce new cultural norms allows you to codify new culture. Encode your desired principles and behaviors in simple memorable memes. And repeat, repeat, repeat. This way you can spread your “idea virus” as Seth Godin called it, and “Make it stick” as Chip and Dan Heath taught.

Symbols trigger the unconscious mind — making the new culture ubiquitous

Below the surface lie our subconscious mind and motivations: Visual symbols can keep the change initiative top-of-mind for employees, catalyzing the subconscious shift towards the new culture. This can be anything from a logo to specific color schemes, mascots, special clothing or accessories, anything that is initially associated with the new culture, and then triggers that association when encountered again.

Most of our day is unconsciously triggered. If you want a good example of how powerfully even our creativity is primed by our subconscious perception, check out this video by Derren Brown. In the video he tricks two advertising professionals in creating exactly what he wants by priming them with subconscious perception.

Note: Using symbols to craft culture can also include removing status symbols that are elements of the old undesired culture. From ties and parking spots to other privileges that used to symbolize “power over” in daily life.

Manifesting Culture in Rituals — shifting “How We Do Things Around Here”

Culture is reflected in daily rituals. Rituals are a “series of actions or types of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone”. How we meet each other and greet each other in the hallways. How we treat each other when we need things from one another. How we hold meetings, how we follow up on those meetings and the agreements we make in them, and how we treat each other when those agreements are broken.

Describing and tracking these behaviors is essential for measuring the impact of cultural transformation. After all, behaviors are the drivers for up-stream metrics. By being radical, by going to the root of culture, we can shift performance with this powerful lever. By measuring behaviors, we can measure if we really create that impact. But it will take a moment…

Building a movement

Cultural transformation, like most things in life, requires aspiration, perspiration, and perseverance.

You have to start with the end in mind, with the vision of your Utopia. This will give you strength on tough days, allow you to find your passion no matter what, and use that passion to ignite others to join you on the path.

It will take work and sweat. Anyone claiming culture transformation is easy has probably not experienced it from the inside. It will require efforts — and the efforts of a community.

So focus on the community of your innovators and early adopters, and use them to build internal capacity, exemplifying and weaving this new archetype and its principles into your organization. Through storytelling and by using consistent language and symbols to trigger desired rituals and behaviors, they can train the early majority and help cross the cultural chasm for you.

“How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be” — Elizabeth Lesser

More about how you can transform your workforce and yourself in the coming installments:

  • Part 1 — The Relational Workforce in an Age of Transformation and AI — How need to activate relational intelligence and authenticity in order to relate productively and collaboratively create value
  • Part 2 — The Future of Organizing — Characteristics of new organizations — purpose driven and with a new Cultural Operating System focused on relationships and value creation
  • Part 3 — How to shift your cultural operating system — how you can use your innovators and early adopters to build internal capacity and cross the chasm to “a new normal”
  • Part 4 — Learning cycles of the individual — the leadership development and resilience required for those willing to use the liminal space of transformation in order to actively create the future

Are you curious about the future? Already actively creating it? Want to learn more about transformation or share with me how you are mastering it? Please connect and reach out on LinkedIn, my website or if you are leading transformation at your company and can use some support via LUMAN.

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philip horváth

culture catalyst ★ planetary strategist — creating cultural operating systems at planetary scale — tweeting on #future, #culture, #leadership @philiphorvath