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How to Transform an Old School Culture to Award Winning Innovators

How to Transform an Old School Culture to Award Winning Innovators

by | May 6, 2019 | By Karin Hurt, Courageous Cultures |

There’s a lot to be said for old school culture.

You’ve got a strong, respected brand. Loyal customers. Your values and mission are clear. Employees know what’s up and what to do next. They’re proud of the work that they do and why it matters.

Whatever you do, you don’t want to lose that.

And yet all that clarity can lead to stagnation. So, you put some new leaders in place. You do extensive market research. Reorganize to keep pace with a changing market. And, you ask your employees to work a bit differently.

It can be tough for your employees to keep up. How do you maintain trust when so much is changing? How do you leverage the best of the old school culture while driving innovation and engagement for the future?

One Secret to Transform Culture, Build Trust and Drive Innovation

I recently spoke with Susie McNamara about the cultural transformation work she led at her last job at a large consumer products company.

When I heard Susie talk about her work on a recent HR Leaders Podcast I was particularly intrigued by a leadership development technique they call “mini- personal experiments.”

First, they leveraged their consumer innovation team to help conduct a strategic brainstorming session with 30 people managers. They used some of the same methods they use to understand what’s on consumers hearts and minds, to tap into what employees need most. Their task—have a transparent conversation to get underneath the key behaviors critical to building trust and engagement.

I love what they did next.

From Old School Culture to Building Courage and Trust Through Mini-Personal Experiments

Next, they identified bold but simple “mini-personal experiments” strategy (if you’ve read Winning Well, think “confidence bursts” where they identified simple but bold behaviors they believed, if practiced consistently, would build better engagement and trust.)

“The magic behind these experiments is that they’re both easy and uncomfortable,” McNamara shared. “We weren’t asking for a long-term commitment, just a focused effort to try out a new behavior and observe the impact.”

Need leaders explaining “Why?” Run a personal experiment. For one day have a manager commit to starting every conversation they have that day with the “Why” behind what they’re going to say next.

Having trouble prioritizing? Join the “Say it with your signature” personal experiment, and write down your top three priorities and include them in your email signature.

And Susie’s favorite experiment, for perfectionists like her who struggled with over-preparing—the “one-hour challenge,” which meant limiting prep time for meetings and presentations to one hour.

Did mini-personal experiments single-handedly change the culture? Of course not. Culture change is always a complex cocktail.

But employee engagement scores soared and they won some prestigious recognition for the impact.

What mini-personal experiment would make the biggest impact on your leadership? What bold and easy behavior could you adopt for one day, one week or one month and study the impact?

Your turn: How about you?

What’s ONE of your BEST PRACTICES for building a courageous culture?

See Also:

To Become Who You Want to Be, Try These 15 Experiments

How CLOs are Rethinking Learning Strategies for Short and Long-Term Development of Employees

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Jay

    Hi Karin,

    I am in turn around situation in which the “Old School Culture” is clinged to. Many of our employees have been with the company for in excess of 15 years and a handful as many as 30 years. The fact is, their values and family atmosphere contributed to many years of success. In recent years operations have become much more difficult as leaders move out and new leaders are hired and emerge from within. The change results in precisely what you have explained above and requires a delicate hand. The affinity diagram form of brain storming which I relate to the method you described is a effective tool. I have found the most effective tool is genuine communication as often as possible while reinstalling management systems that empower at the lowest possible level. Thats a lot easier said than done, but I believe will result in a sustainable and productive outcome. I enjoyed reading your work, I will no doubt visit again.

    Thank you

  2. Lynda Moe

    Hi Karin and Jay. A really powerful tool I’ve used to move people from the old to the new is Appreciative inquiry. Also, for building trust and relationshipsThe Emotional Culture Deck is excellent and leads to some very thought-provoking conversations. It’s a powerful tool for culture change work.

    • Karin Hurt

      Lynda, Thanks so much for expanding the conversation! I am a big fan of Appreciative Inquiry and agree it’s a powerful way of envisioning what’s possible for the desired culture and building concrete actions to get there.



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