Cultural transformation can be a rocky road.

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cultural transformation

Cultural transformation is not an overnight event. The word ‘transformation’ means, “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” So, cultural transformation is a change or shift in an organization or a team. The road to such shift is not simple, easy, or always smooth.

Recently, I watched, First Man, a 2018 film starring Ryan Gosling in the role of Neil Armstrong. I was not very familiar with the journey leading up to the point that Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins embarked on the Apollo 11 spaceflight.

As a nation, we were so proud that they reached the moon, and we all look at that point in time with great pride. We remember Armstrong’s first words as he stepped on the moon, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It all seemed magical.

What many do not remember is that Neil Armstrong, along with many others, embarked on multiple dangerous test flights and enormous amounts of training. People lost their lives while aiming for this spectacular feat.

While I was watching this movie, I thought about how this journey was a lot like that of attempting cultural transformation. Below are how I see the similarities:

Fear can be pervasive.

While watching this movie, the fear in the minds of the astronauts and those on the ground was palpable. The film’s director wanted us to see how Armstrong tossed back and forth in his mind about the possibility of failure and the unknown. This fear was more obvious as the crashes and accidental deaths increased.

Organizational leaders are often fearful of embarking on cultural transformation. There are many unknown factors at play. Will they lose key employees, or customers in the process? The answer might be yes and no. Should the answer stop your organization from pursuing this shift?

Risks can be high.

Can you imagine the risks associated with going to the moon? There were the possibilities of electrical failures, fires, falling debris, explosions, communication failures and much more. The higher the risk the rockier the journey. Nonetheless, it doesn’t make the journey less necessary.

Organizational leaders must consider the risks of attempting to change culture. Despite the risks, the rewards can be great.

57% of employees cite a positive workplace culture as the main contributor to meaningful work.

TINYpulse 2018 Employee Engagement Report

When employees feel like the work that they do is meaningful, they are more willing to go over and above to achieve business results. The benefits from their increased emotional investment make cultural transformation worth the risk.

Mistakes are inevitable.

After watching, First Man, I was dumbfounded by the mistakes that were made prior to the actual historical spaceflight. It was not a seamless process. The mistakes cost lives and millions of dollars.

Many organizational leaders are taken aback by the potential for mistakes along the cultural transformation journey. This may stop or dissuade many a leadership team. Irrespective, mistakes are inevitable. Rapid iteration is a key part of any transformation. Iteration implies a shorter evaluation process. Any type of innovation invites mistakes. That is how we learn and grow. Don’t let the fear of making mistakes stop the process.

Obstacles are everywhere.

As in all things, obstacles to achieving anything are everywhere. It is how we see them, how we attack them, how we embrace them, that makes all the difference!

Before the Apollo 11 flight, Neil Armstrong and many other astronauts experienced barriers to getting to the successful flight. From a fire in the spaceship, to crash landings, and to negative public perception, they persisted nonetheless.

When we embark on lofty goals that benefit many, obstacles will be everywhere. What will we do with them? How will we use them?


I love this quote from John F. Kennedy when speaking at Rice University following the successful landing on the moon,

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and to measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

JFK at Rice University

This highlights the fact that any journey worth taking is worth pursuing with fervor. Cultural transformation can, indeed, be a rocky road.  There are risks, fears, mistakes and obstacles along the way. Nonetheless, organizational leaders who bring out the best of what their people have in search of that better culture are going to fully experience transformation. Don’t do it, because it is easy, but because doing the hard thing will create a culture where all employees will feel respected, valued and heard. That is worth the rocky journey.

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