How to Be the ‘Change Architect’ Your Organization Needs

An illustration of a woman architecting a system in a person's head

Authored by

Chris Weller
Most culture change initiatives fall apart because nobody attends to the key factors that determine their success.

Just like a house can’t be built without the right blueprints, your culture can’t come together without a detailed set of plans. Selecting culture principles on a whim, without considering how they fit together, will only lead to instability and inconsistency. On the other hand, if you rely on tested principles of how successful cultures come together, you can build something truly sustainable.

That’s why every organization needs a “change architect” — someone whose job is to oversee how changes come together, as we describe in a recent article in Fast Company. It’s up to the change architect to ensure leaders feel equipped to manage their teams according to the new ways of working and that employees feel equipped to work together in new ways. NLI’s research suggests three factors influence both groups and drive all successful culture change programs: cognitive capacity, coherence, and habit activation.

Here’s a briefing on each factor and how to deploy them to build the best culture possible.

Cognitive capacity, coherence, and habit activation

Cognitive capacity refers to how much people can process at one time. Often, leaders and employees are equally overburdened with priorities, and most culture change strategies fail to consider everything else people have going on, so they don’t take root.

To honor people’s cognitive capacity, change architects should make it clear in communication about the change that this effort won’t make people’s jobs or lives harder. In fact, any good culture change should make people’s lives easier. Highlighting those benefits can help people get on board with the change since they can clearly see what’s in it for them.

The second factor, coherence, is the way the new culture change fits in with existing efforts. Short of a complete cultural rebuild, most changes are more like renovations to a house. Some things stay the same but others will change, and it’s important to make sure the new stuff works well with what already exists.

Change architects can preserve coherence in their efforts by mapping out the existing habits and systems that uphold the company’s culture. Write down which elements aren’t changing, how they’ve historically affected the way people work together, and then square them with the proposed changes. If you catch a tangle between priorities — say, an existing goal to go to market quickly and a new goal of sharing ideas with others to gather more diverse perspectives — you can sit with the puzzle and figure out how to align the pieces.

Lastly, habit activation refers to the behaviors that people perform most often. These underpin culture, which we define as “shared everyday habits.” For a culture change to be successful, entire groups of people need to stop doing one set of behaviors and start practicing another.

To help people build new habits, recognize that the strongest motivator of new behavior is insight. When people have an “aha” moment in response to a new piece of information or a story about the way things get done, and it’s strong enough to change how the person sees the world, they become extremely motivated to act on that insight. When it comes to the change effort you’re leading, ask yourself: What insight can I give people that compels them to act?

Create structure to create change

Any experienced architect can look at a set of blueprints and know if their structure will work. As a change architect within a company, you should have the same ability. With cognitive capacity, coherence, and habit activation as your guide, you can scan a proposed set of programs or policies and discern how well the program will respect people’s mental limits, agree with existing programs, and lead to building more effective behaviors.

The work of changing culture takes a lot of time, energy, and effort, but by getting the priorities right at the beginning, you can rest assured that what you’re building won’t come crumbling down anytime soon — rather, it will be built in a way that stands the test of time.

Read the full article in Fast Company here.

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