Cultural Change#

What is cultural change?#

Culture is defined in many ways, one of which is about the social environment in which you partake, or the customs and behaviours that define a group of people. Culture has an influence on your views, values, concerns and your identity. Culture can be difficult to change as it is hard to address directly and shared values can be deeply ingrained ([Kot12]). Instead, norms of behaviour may be easier to change.

Here, cultural change is defined as inspiring a change in behaviour in persons/organisations, with a lasting impact, strengthening the core values of persons/organisation.

This section will continue to describe where you will encounter cultural change. This is followed by short summaries of works on cultural change, written by Adrienne Marie Brown, William and Susan Bridges and John P. Kotter.

A black, white, and purple cartoon of scales. On the one side are a lot of objects, with a person buried under the pile and peering out, and on the other side only two objects with a shiny star on them, and someone standing next to them with a smile. Both sides weigh equally. The text says 'time for a cultural shift, we should value reproducibility as much as the amount of papers published.'

Fig. 137 The Turing Way project illustration by Scriberia. Used under a CC-BY 4.0 licence. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.8169292.#

Where/when will you encounter cultural change?#

As your social environment is continuously changing, you are likely to experience some degree of cultural change on a daily basis. This might not feel like it, because the actual change that takes place will take months or even years.

Generally, you will either be affected by cultural change, or, you want to invoke cultural change by adjusting existing practices yourself.

When you are affected by cultural change taking place in your environment, it may be difficult to change your practises and behaviour. Cassandra Worthy wrote ‘Change Enthusiasm’ ([Wor21]) to provide you with exercises and tools to see changes as an opportunity for learning and growth. As an Early Career Researcher you may also have to deal with systemic cultural change in your discipline. The work by [KHA+22] contains recommendations that may support you in this change journey.

You can also change the culture and get involved in committees that update policies, or add new ones (see the Guide to Accelerate Public Access to Research Data for some pointers that are applicable beyond a research data policy). You may be advocating to make your work environment more inclusive, at the office or within your research association. To provide you with some guidance to invoke cultural change, you can read the works summarised below:

Emergent strategy#

Emergent strategy by adrienne marie brown ([bro17]) teaches us that change is inevitable, and that we can shape change. By practising at the small scale/fractals we set the patterns for the whole system. We all hold pieces of the solution and will need to transform ourselves to transform the world. By being accountable, practising generosity and vulnerability, we can connect better to others build lasting relationships. The easier it is for you to be wrong, the faster you can release your viewpoint and the easier it is to adapt to changing circumstances.

Principles of emergent strategy

  • Small is good, small is all (the large is a reflection of the small).

  • Change is constant (be like water).

  • There is always enough time for the right work.

  • There is a conversation in the room that only this moment can have. Find it.

  • Never a failure, always a lesson.

  • Trust the people. (If you trust the people they become trustworthy or the boundaries will become clear.)

  • Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass – build the resilience by building the relationships.

  • Less prep, more presence.

  • What you pay attention to grows.

Conversation is a crucial way to explore what we believe and to make new understandings and ideas possible. Consider the areas where trust needs to be built: you will need to demonstrate that you’re thinking about the same values/concerns. To accomplish your vision for the future it needs to be clear what needs to be done and who will do it. There should be time for reflection and evaluation to apply lessons learned to future work, and time for celebration of collective achievements.

Managing Transitions#

Managing Transitions by William and Susan Bridges ([BB17]) teaches us that a change will always be accompanied by a transition. A transition begins when something needs to be let go, and sits in between the old and the new situation. This transition phase can be insecure for people who will have to adjust to a new situation, but also an opportunity for innovation to happen if people are adequately resourced and supported (by policies, groupings, procedures).

There are four P’s in transitions ([BB17]):

  • Purpose: people have to understand the logic behind the outcome and feel that the change is necessary.

  • Picture: people need to experience how the outcome will look and feel.

  • Plan: people need a step-by-step plan to know what they have to do.

  • Part to play: especially if people have something to loose, they need to be able to play a part in the transition phase and eventual outcome.

To manage transitions it needs to be clear what the problem (reason for change) is. People will not change if they are not experiencing the problem and are convinced something needs to be adjusted. Those experiencing the problem will also have expertise and knowledge to come up with an effective solution. Individuals will stand to lose something when change is happening - a sense of control over this transition helps to make the transition more comfortable. It is important to learn what problems people are facing in a transition phase, and recognise individuals that do contribute to the change. People will need to feel safe to experiment and take risks, and not be punished when these experiments fail.

It is important that changes are meaningfully clustered, or held off until they can be, to avoid a messy change pile:

  • If changes are meaningfully clustered the changes are incorporated in the bigger change picture, and it makes sense to act on these further changes right now.

  • In a messy change pile, the changes are not neatly connected to the change that is already happening. This can feel overwhelming as too many different changes are happening at the same time, which may pull people in different directions.

To ensure that people will change their behaviour, they will need to learn how to adapt to new behaviours through training. People will not be able to invest in this, if the new behaviours are not adequately rewarded (for example, focused placed on publications written instead of open data/software). Short term goals can give people a sense of achievement and encourage them to move forward.

Leading change#

According to John P Kotter ([Kot12]) there are eight steps in change:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency by identifying potential crises/opportunities.

  2. Creating the guiding coalition, a team that works together to lead the change.

  3. Developing a vision to direct the change and strategy to achieve this vision.

  4. Communicating the change vision using every communication channel possible, including role modelling.

  5. Empowering action by removing obstacles and encouraging risk-taking.

  6. Generating short-term wins and recognise people who made these wins possible.

  7. Consolidating change: maintain a sense of urgency, use situations to start a new wave of change, keep celebrating successes and evaluate/adjust if needed.

  8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture.

The first four steps in the transformation process help to convince people or an organisation that they need to change. Phases five to seven introduce new practices. The last stage focusses on making these new practices stick.

Change is a team effort

A single individual will not affect cultural change in an organisation, as this requires collective action. A team with members in position of power, members with expertise or leadership skills and credibility, will be needed.

Vision for change

The vision refers to the future and why people should strive to create that future. A vision clarifies the general direction for change and motivates people to take coordinated action. A vision will acknowledge that sacrifices will be needed to achieve benefits that would not be achievable without change. An effective vision is imaginable (it conveys a picture of the future), desirable (appealing to anyone involved in the change), feasible (has attainable goals), focused (for clear decision-making), and flexible (to allow for alternative responses in light of changing conditions).

This vision should be easy to communicate in under five minutes. The effective communication of the vision depends on the simplicity of the message, whether appropriate metaphors or pictures are used, the communication channels used, how often the message is repeated and how the behaviour is modelled by important people. These important or influential people can have expertise on the topic the change is focusing on, a network which they can influence, or hold a higher hierarchical position in the institution which provides them with more power to achieve changes.


Cultural change is a long-term effort that you can achieve by taking one step at a time, ideally with some like-minded individuals. As it is difficult to achieve change without knowing where you’re heading, it is good to outline a vision of what the change should look like. To achieve change, transitions are inevitable. Transitions can be difficult to navigate for individuals, so patience and support are needed to safely fail in adjusting existing practices. The works described in this section provide some guidance and places to start your cultural change adventure!