Agree or Disagree: Don't Change Culture

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Categories: Change Management

Agree or Disagree is a new series on Voices on Project Management in which two bloggers debate both sides of one point of view. Here, we take a closer look at a quote from Peter Drucker, U.S. management consultant and author: "Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you've got."

A country's culture consists of its people's history, thoughts, system and rules. Companies are structures that originate and operate within that country's culture, and they exist to fulfill the needs of that country's people. A country's culture will impose and manifest itself within the company through its local workforce and interactions.

"Company cultures are like country cultures" because of what people perceive to be acceptable and unacceptable; what they are sensitive to; and what their priorities are. For example, one very famous Western multinational coffee chain that operates in Saudi Arabia synced with the country's culture to design its shops and services, which feature separate women, family and men sections. Like many other international companies, this one has successfully used the "work with what you've got" approach.

I have to agree with Drucker that we should "never try to change one" because that can be perceived as antagonistic and lead to alienation. In my experience, successful individuals and company cultures are the ones that expend their energy to find commonalities and adapt to complement local culture without compromising their core business values.

I disagree: Dave Wakeman, PMP

Peter Drucker said a great deal that still rings true in our daily and professional lives. Yet, this statement isn't one of them. 

In reflecting on his quote, I find myself imagining what he would say if he looked at any number of businesses or sports teams that make changes to their administration and turn their culture into something entirely different.

An example that illustrates why Mr. Drucker is wrong is when Nick Saban became head football coach at the University of Alabama in 2007. He undertook a plan he calls "The Process" that changed everything about the football program's culture. He emphasized taking everything one step at a time -- which differed tremendously from other coaches, but led to unbelievable change and success. Alabama won three national championships in five years. 

In changing an organization's culture, look at three key points. First, the buy-in must start at the top of the organization. You can't have a legitimate change in culture without full commitment. Second, you need to change your reward and feedback system to reflect your new culture and the new results desired. If you are still rewarding old behaviors or you don't reinforce the kind of behavior that you are hoping for, your new culture won't take hold. Finally, the lines of communication have to be wide open. This means you have to communicate the goals, objectives and other measures of success to your team. This is important because it allows your team to act in a manner consistent with the new culture.

Do you agree or disagree with Mr. Drucker's quote? 

Posted by Voices Team on: March 17, 2014 01:58 PM | Permalink


Richard Seaman
Culture is the cornerstone in change adoption. Since most projects create outcomes that require some level of change at the the process, the technology, or the individual level, culture becomes a cornerstone for successful project completion and adoption. With the amount of research that has been conducted in this area, I take issue with both the Karim and Wakeman positions; but not violent issue because there is significant value in both positions as presented. The Karim position is essentially right on point, to a point. The easiest approach for successful project completion is to normalize the project's outcome to the cultural norms of the organization. But what are the cultural norms? Is it the umbrella culture reflected in the vision statement and the HR literature? Or does it fall to the dominate sub-culture or sub-cultures to drive conformity? Having spent time in the technology delivery and business excellence domain, I know that many projects are designed to elicit individual and group change and thereby go head-to-head with group cultural norms. Let's be fair, this is an especially daunting task especially with strong sub-cultures. Playing by "house rules" simplifies. It also constrains. The fault I find with the Karim position is the use of "never" which is simply not realistic. For all the reasons stated by Karim, culture is to be respected and honored. That honor and respect is the first step forward when a cultural "shift" is required, but as research has demonstrated time and again, it is only a guarantee to the next step, not the destination. If the cultural norms are 180 degrees from those required for project outcome adoption, then the prudent course of action is to save the investment and scrap the planned project, or; redesign the project to include a heavily weighted cultural change component. This is the segue to the Wakeman position. The Wakeman points on how to approach changing culture are also right on point. What's missing is the statement of understanding that not every culture can be changed. That understanding is based precisely on the culture change requirements stated in his approach. Start with key buy-in by leadership. The harsh reality in leadership is resistance to change masquerading as buy-in. Buy-in is the right thing to do and may be initiated as the right thing done. However, the leader may feel justified to privately withhold full buy-in simply because of the nature of high level details, the leader's oxymoron. The change world correctly places the leader in the role to guide, coach and monitor. When I read the literature on leadership I sometimes get the feeling that the change world forgets that a leader's change-decision-intelligence is vision based, wary of unanticipated risk, and wary of accountability. The wariness is presented as feedback, but functions as push-back. Such "feedback" can be project or change fatal. The Wakeman position correctly states the need for interventions and communication systems that check old behaviors and encourage new behaviors. But I find that position is often the ideal and not the reality. Research has established that the most affective communication systems are informal and socially (culturally) driven. It is also significant to understand that these communication systems may not effectively function across sub-cultures. These are all conditions that can be overcome. But let us also realize that these are also conditions that may not be overcome.

Karen Smits
Drucker seems to state that culture is a fixed concept, which I do not agree with. I belief culture is a dynamic concept and cultures change continuously. During the life cycle of an organization, values and practices change over time. Hence, instead of the "work with what you've got" approach, I belief cultures can be changed, step by step and with a focus on specific aspects.

This is a complex question. It is funny, the first example is a contradiction, the coffee company changed its culture in order to meet a market demand. This is appropriate and required for organizations to thrive, everyone must adapt to local conditions. I also postulate that country culture and organizational culture are very different. For the most part, country culture is not managed, which is to say it lacks the level of intention of most company culture. There are times when one must follow company culture and times when we must seek to change it. It all depends upon the situation. As project manager, I have been involved in projects with explicit goals to change culture. It is also important to note, there are times we must seek to change the culture when it is leading to bad behavior. One need only look at the recent financial meltdown to see the dramatic effect culture can have on the global economic environment. Lastly, "culture" is not static. It is constantly changing in ways both intentional and unintentional. As one broad example, what one generation may deem a cultural norm another may not. One only look at our home countries or our own companies over the last 100 years to see how things have changed and yet still need to change. As a project manager, we have two responsibilities: firstly to do what is right/ethical, second to achieve the goal and objectives of our project. This may mean we need to walk the strait and narrow path to achieve success and at other times we need to forge a new path.

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