Fueling Culture Change: The Power of Micro-Cultures

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. -Margaret Mead

Most of the talk of culture is how the CEO of a company sets the tone and carries it out consistently through common values, behaviors, and decisions that cascade from the executive suite to the front lines.

Having spent my career teaching and helping leaders create this kind of impact, I see the increasing need to simplify such an effort. We are moving too fast to wait for culture to change, top-down. There will never be a substitute for a CEO and Chief HR leader owning the culture it creates (Lest we forget, Uber reminded us, recently.)

Yet, there is a powerful, growing need to simplify culture building. This can be done through groundswell movements, built from the bottom up: Passionate leaders of teams and departments, fostering micro-cultures within the larger organization. Launching a new idea, a product innovation, a cool piece of software. Buffered from the boundaries of the regular system. Done well, these groups perform amazing feats on-time and on-budget.

When Groundswell Works

Maybe you are inside a large global company and tired of waiting for cultural transformation to trickle down. You wonder “How can I make a difference in a culture that is not yet agile, friendly to change, or modern – but knows it should be?”

Maybe you are a positive, energized leader of a department or team or retail location of talented people, who just loves the thrill of creating high energy and high performance.

Maybe a merger or global expansion is creating chaos, and you wish to buffer your team from the unraveling effect.

Creating groundswell culture can happen in any context where there is a leader who wants to engage, involve, and unleash the best in his or her people.

What is Groundswell Culture? 

Culture is seen, through how a group of people get anything done.

It is set in motion – or changed – by how leaders set up systems and processes that drive interaction, communication, cooperation (or competition), and the creation or growing of a common mission or purpose.

A groundswell in nature, is a very strong wind over the ocean which creates intense wave swells with sustained impact over long distances. There is more energy, momentum, power as a result. Similarly, tapping the organization at influential areas of the front lines, through empowering micro-cultures, can create a groundswell movement that results in pockets of highly energizing, enduring, engaging impact.

And, tribal identity that bonds the people and foster trust.

A groundswell movement engages people at the level that matters: Their immediate environment and relationships. The key is ensuring there is power of choice (in which no one is forced)  AND connection to a powerful, clear, and meaningful mission.

How Does Groundswell Work?

You can see the phenomenon of groundswell, in how culture is created: Similar habits of thought lead to a “swelling” of collective habits of behavior. (Watch how a family ends up all eating the same way.) It’s why a culture can outlast a CEO long after they have retired – even when it no longer serves the company’s mission and strategy. This is also why it is so difficult to change a deeply entrenched culture – there is momentum and power that is sustained by beliefs (very strong waves.)  Beliefs are not easy to observe OR change – in fact, some would say that unless you have enough external urgency or pressure to change them,  you won’t see much lasting or real change.


It worked to advantage in the Industrial Era: When the environment benefits from a calculated outcome that is predictive and the goal is little to no variance.

We are in the Digital Era now. Change is a requirement, not an evil. People are idea-carriers, not cogs in a wheel, human capital or FTE’s. Values are sought-after to stimulate ideas, not just posters on the wall.

This Era of change, ideas, core values, lends itself to fostering diversity of thought within small tribes. Not requiring the old system to transform itself. By harnessing the energy at its source: Among the Millennial generation (the first born into the Digital Era) through the teams they work on and lead.

When you move upstream from observing how people adapt in a new environment, to intentionally creating and shaping a team of people to accomplish a mission via the path of least resistance, you create a micro-culture that can accomplish powerful growth. Even when the larger system doesn’t support it.

Of course the larger system culture will have an effect on what a micro-culture can do – especially when customers and colleagues butt up against limiting rules or a powerful group who won’t cooperate.

And yet, this can work incredibly well when a leader with a vision to lead is willing to take some risks.  Yes, you CAN enact positive change at any level where two or more people are working together.

Believe it and GO. What’s the worst that can happen?  You end up learning a lot, even if the task itself didn’t match what you hoped for.

Building a Micro-Culture Within a Culture

There are a few necessary conditions for creating a micro-culture that accomplishes the amazing:

1) Name your culture. 

As the leader, begin with the 3-word exercise: What are the 3 most important adjectives to describe the micro-culture you want to build? Examples I’ve heard: “Fun, edgy, effective.” (IT support group.) “Creative, friendly, silly.” (Starbucks.) “Casual, all-in, no-heroes” (Development group at tech startup.) These 3 words often reflect  your most important values. To keep things simple, the 3-word exercise forces you to really define the essence of what you want to create. It is a thoughtful process to choose 3 words. The conversations you have with the team can evolve it, and clarify what the 3 words really mean. Eventually, they become an anchor for a feeling state you are producing within the group. If you are part of a larger company, tie them to the existing Values, as a sign of respect and alignment.

2) Crowdsource your team mission.

Here’s a fun technique: The leader pastes an 8-10 foot piece of butcher paper on a wall, and asks people to post their answers to two questions: (1) “In 10 words or less, describe our team’s mission.” (2) “Why is this mission important, and how will we make a difference?” You may need to prime the pump on this, by incenting them, by showing a couple of examples. People can vote on other contributions. Criteria: It is descriptive, an outsider could understand it, and it feels inspiring. Then ask the team to vote on it. In the end, you as the leader need to create the final version. Make sure that version is visible everywhere people work.

3) Commit to the dream. 

When you envision any desired state – whether a mission or a culture – the world will inevitably present you with all the evidence that your current reality is NOT that dream. Keep your compass pointed on the future state. This is not always easy, but it is essential. The human brain is highly literal: It creates what it focuses upon. Too many post-mortems and assigning blame and Financial / Operations Reviews keep our lens pointed on the past – it’s like leading through the rear-view mirror, and slows us down from speeding towards a Vision. Keep the destination CLEAR and accelerator ON by reminding the team of the reasons why their mission is important, often. Make the dream front-and-center, and the evidence that it is worthy and it is working. Does the desired future get more air-time than problems and setbacks? Watch ahead for miracles!

4) Create a positivity bubble.

The world will bring you down … if you allow it. There is a compelling societal addiction to negative thinking, exhibited through news, social media, pop culture. (Feel-good stories just don’t sell as well.) The leader of a micro-culture must build a bubble of immunity to negativity, naysayers, nervous colleagues. Sometimes, that means running interference – and selling your vision – with other departments. You can’t shield people from negativity but you can feed positivity. Consistently return people’s focus towards what we want, uplifting reasons to pursue it, and good news. WHY it’s important. Celebrate the tiniest accomplishments and success steps. Practice gratitude in meetings. Reframe setbacks as guardrails – course-correcting moments on the path towards your destination. Sound Pollyanna? Maybe. But you won’t gag on it when you feel the benefits of doing it. Watching people blossom and results skyrocket, will make a believer out of any cynic.

5) Practice daily habits that build the culture you want.

Establish team agreements around meeting habits, communication habits, decision habits. How we “clear the air.” How we keep each other updated on essential knowledge in the most efficient way. How we interact with groups and teams in the larger company, that don’t buy-in to our micro-culture. Evolve your agreements as needed, but most importantly; practice them. There is a lot of good, accessible information on fostering healthy team habits. You can find a few on my blog “7 Short Tips to Re-Energize a Team or Project.

Always remember, “Small groups of committed people can change the world.” The catalyst is one leader with a clear vision.

Build your micro-culture and watch the world you create, thrive.


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