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An Approach to Successful Culture Change

Categories: Corporate Culture

As I wrote earlier in this series, the self-reinforcing nature of culture almost always guarantees resistance toward change. If there is a wide gap between the current culture and the culture required for success, expect a high level of cultural resistance. Quite simply, culture does not evolve on its own to support new strategic solutions. You can understand this better by looking at the role that momentum and critical mass plays in the implementation of change. (I have written a separate series on this topic.)

A Culture Shift Must Be Planned

When the current culture won’t support delivery of the promises of our clients’ new strategies and they determine not to “change the change,” our focus as professional change facilitators is to guide them toward changing the culture. You’ll need to help them build the momentum and critical mass necessary for success. The cultures that emerge must also support success, so new cultures should be designed as carefully as any new headquarters building or manufacturing facility would be. A simple graph of culture change is shown below.

Pay attention to the overarching design of a new culture. Only those aspects of the culture that are not supportive of successfully achieving the strategy should be modified. It is also essential to architect the new culture at the subculture level to ensure that the local interpretations not only support the strategy, but also integrate effectively with the other subcultures across the organization.

Earlier in this series, I said that culture consists of both behaviors and mindsets. Changing behaviors is necessary, but isn’t enough to build the momentum and critical mass required. Mindsets have to change as well. It is also important to integrate the culture change into the overall strategy plan. Correct timing of culture change can make the difference between achieving change success early, late, or not at all.


5 Things to Remember About Culture

We owe it to ourselves as practitioners and to our clients to be solidly grounded in the realities of cultural change. When considering culture change as part of a strategic initiative, there are five things to remember.

  • Culture, which consists of both mindsets and behaviors, is shared by members of an organization. It functions in a way that reinforces itself. As a result, while culture is able to provide a strong foundation for business success in stable environments, it can become a significant impediment to success when executing major change.
  • Culture change should not be taken on casually, nor should the potential need for it be put off or ignored.
  • When helping with a culture change, help the client look at it from the organizational level as well as within the context of subcultures.
  • As practitioners, we must be able to assess whether our client’s current culture is aligned with the culture required to deliver realization of their initiatives. This means helping them determine how strong the current culture is so we will know how difficult it will be to change and how consistent it is with what is needed.
  • If, after thorough analysis, no other course to realization is available, we should recommend a culture change. When a new culture design is necessary, ensure the appropriate timing so that you can help clients build the momentum and critical mass required for success.

This series has been about some of the lessons learned for me as I have helped clients face the cultural implications of their initiatives. Many are obvious, but I hope they are worth noting; others may be different from your own experience. There isn’t one perspective on how to go about cultural work, so I invite you to share your viewpoints.

Go to the beginning of this series

Next series: Implanting DNA

Posted on: August 16, 2011 05:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

What Role Does Culture Play During Change?

Categories: Corporate Culture

Culture—“the way things are around here”—is often beneficial to organizations during periods of relative stability. After all, culture reinforces itself. It operates in ways that ensure its own continuity, which is a good thing when all is well. When we introduce change (a disruption to or intrusion on what people expect), however, the culture works hard to defeat it, and to maintain the status quo. Bigger change means more disruption and even more intrusion, and the culture will work even harder to defeat it.

Culture Eats Change for Lunch

Unfortunately, many leaders (and some change practitioners) don’t attend to the culture as they should when confronting major upheavals. Sometimes, they disregard the power of culture to maintain the status quo. Sometimes, culture is seen as “too soft and mushy” to address. Some leaders believe that the culture will change on its own once a new strategy (or new organizational structure, or new technology) is in place. They might also feel the investment required to change culture is too high, or the process of changing culture too difficult. Finally, there are those leaders who believe they can avoid addressing culture until the “real” work of change has been completed (which they see as installing the new policies, procedures, etc). When leaders with any of these perspectives introduce significant initiatives, their organization’s culture will likely overwhelm the changes and leave their commitments less than fully realized. When we as practitioners don’t know how to effectively address cultural change or are unwilling to be explicit with leaders about the need to do so, we are complicit in undermining realization of the intended outcomes.

When Should the Organization Change the Culture?

It’s imperative to consider organizational culture when orchestrating significant change. However, any assessment should focus first on whether a culture change is required, not on how to change the culture.

There are three questions I pose when helping clients determine if a cultural change is needed.   The first is related to consistency:

1. “How similar are your existing mindsets and behaviors to the mindsets and behaviors required to realize the promised benefits of the change?”

The greater the disparity between the two, the higher the risk of failure without appropriate cultural modifications. On the other hand, if there is a high level of consistency, the existing culture, in all likelihood, will support the new initiative.

The second question relates to the potency of the culture:

2. “How strong is the existing culture?”

Not surprisingly, weak cultures (where people pay little attention to cultural messages) can be changed much more easily than strong ones. At the same time, if a strong culture doesn’t contain the behaviors and mindsets needed for initiative success, modifications must be intentionally orchestrated.

The more inconsistent the existing culture is with that required for realization, the more difficult, expensive, and risky it will be to change it. Therefore, if the answers to the first two questions reflect a need to bring the client’s change and its related culture into stronger alignment, there is a third question to address:

3. “Is it possible to change the change so it is more accommodating to the existing culture, yet still deliver on the promises that have been made?”

My advice to clients is that whenever it’s feasible, try to fulfill the promise of change by recalibrating the initiative itself (“change the change”). For example, this might mean lowering expectations about what will be accomplished. (“When we began planning this initiative, we hoped we could increase market share by 15%; now that we are deeper into it, we realize that our gains will more likely be in the 5%-10% range.) Or, it may mean extending the timeframe for achieving the goals. (“We remain optimistic that we can achieve 15% growth in market share; however, with what we have learned, we anticipate it will take four years to do so, rather than three.”)

Unfortunately, many initiatives that are essential to execute can’t accomplish their aim if modified in this way. The endeavor may be challenging but anything less simply will not accomplish what must be done. When this is the case, rather than change the change, it’s time for the client to face the need to change the culture. At these junctures, it’s critical that the client determine whether the existing mindsets and behaviors—and the strength with which they are demonstrated—will put realization at risk. If they will and the initiative represents a business imperative for the organization, it’s imperative leaders come to terms with not being able to deliver realization by changing the change itself. It’s time to make the decision to change the culture.

 Next: An Approach to Successful Culture Change

Go to the beginning of this series

Posted on: August 10, 2011 08:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

What’s Culture Got To Do With It?

Categories: Corporate Culture

"Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up."    ~James Belasco and Ralph Stayer
Flight of the Buffalo (1994)

In a recent series, I reviewed what I have learned about paradigm management and the role it plays in facilitating transformational change. A critical subset of the paradigm model I shared dealt with the interrelationship between “mindsets, behaviors, and systems.”

  • Mindsets—conscious and unconscious understandings and expectations around what people hold to be true about themselves, others, and their work
  • Behaviors—observable actions
  • Systems—the interaction of mindsets and behaviors that have the aim of achieving an organization’s purpose

Expressed or unexpressed mindsets are reflected in particular behaviors. When they are configured and applied in a consistent manner they form systems. There are informal systems (the grapevine) and formal systems (the annual budgeting process).When these three elements of organizational life are focused on, it sheds light on a close cousin to paradigms…culture

Though there are some important distinctions, paradigm and culture are two terms with much in common—not the least of which is the fact that both have been misused, if not abused, by our profession. Like “paradigm leap,” most references to “cultural change” are misapplied in the sense that far fewer actual cultural shifts take place than our rhetoric would suggest.

Also, similar to paradigm leaps, cultural change is an important part of our profession’s conceptual foundation and nomenclature. As such, we need to protect the concept/wording and ensure it is used in the right way and under the right circumstances. We are most likely to accomplish this if we are clear ourselves about what it represents.

There isn’t one perspective on what organizational culture is or how it can be changed so I invite others to share their viewpoints. What follows are some of the lessons I’ve learned from working with clients seeking to ensure realization of key initiatives by making significant modifications in their company’s culture.

Corporate culture is an organizational self-concept similar to an individual’s personality. It develops over a long period of time, although the basic elements typically form early in an organization’s life. A company’s culture includes not only what is done, but why.

Corporate culture is typically multi-faceted and complex because it’s actually a combination of subcultures.

The culture of an organization affects the organization’s ability to change. We need to understand three characteristics of culture to see the relationship between culture and change:

  • Culture is made up of mindsets and behaviors
  • Culture is shared
  • Culture is self-reinforcing

The Dynamics of Culture

Culture’s Two Components: Mindsets and Behaviors

An organization’s culture is lived through the mindsets and behaviors of its employees. The prevailing mindsets and behaviors of an organization help people understand what actions are considered appropriate or inappropriate. This affects daily business operations on two levels:

  • On a conscious level, culture has an observable, intentional, and direct influence on things like goals, policies, procedure manuals, and corporate philosophy statements. Because they are visible, these influences may be easier to change than those that are invisible, or unconscious.
  • On an unconscious level, culture has hidden, unintentional, and indirect influence on such things as informal ground rules, unofficial guidelines, or the way things actually are done vs. the formal processes. These
    influences are difficult to change because they lie below
    the surface of our awareness and/or we may be reluctant to discuss them openly.

For the most part, organizational cultures evolve unconsciously. They are generally unplanned, and they react to short-term demands, rather than according to a long-term view. Over time, mindsets and behaviors develop to meet current challenges; subsequently, the successful ones become reinforced. If, for example, a behavior pattern of “lay low; this change will pass” is demonstrated and numerous change efforts fail to deliver on their promises, a culture of passive resistance is likely to become embedded. Eventually, mindsets and behaviors are taken for granted and become unconscious. Once this occurs, these now-familiar mindsets and behaviors are no longer questioned, becoming business as usual.

Cognitive models, values, beliefs, preferences, and attitudes combine to form mindsets—the mental and emotional structures that guide perceptions, interpretations, and actions. The fact that actions are driven by mindsets places them at the root of culture change, and explains why a focus on actions alone leads to unsustainable change.

There are two key elements of a mindset:

  • Frame of reference—the way an individual makes sense of situations
  • Priorities—the relative importance and value of various options 

Frame of Reference

Each individual has a unique way of comprehending the world. Some people, for instance, are optimists, and focus primarily on the positive aspects of situations. Others are pessimists, and focus primarily on the negative. A person’s professional background, past experience, education, etc. all influence the way he or she views circumstances. The combination of all the various parts of an individual’s understanding of the world makes up his or her frame of reference. In organizations, consistent patterns of interpretation, supported by organizational communication, rewards, etc., lead to shared frames of reference—the basis for organizational culture.


When people encounter situations, their priorities guide what they pay attention to, what they value, and ultimately, what actions they take. People face a variety of choices as they go through their day: Should I eat lunch or exercise? Return this phone call or send an email? Take the time—or risk—to raise this issue or let it slide? The pattern of choices people make are reflections of the things they place the highest value on—the things they see as most important. The pattern of shared priorities within an organization, and, therefore, the pattern of choices made about how to spend time and energy, is another important part of the culture.

Mindsets, as interpreted through frames of reference and priorities, drive behaviors within the organization. Behaviors are observable actions that constitute the way people actually operate on a daily basis. Whereas mindsets reflect intentions that are often difficult to discern, behaviors can be verified in a more objective manner (e.g., Where do people park? Who do they talk to? How do they dress? How do they make decisions? How do they manage conflict?).


So, to summarize, mindsets are shared frames of reference that lead to shared priorities. Within an organization, they serve (along with behaviors) as foundations for understanding and influencing culture. Behaviors provide significant information, but without addressing mindsets  as well, a complete understanding of the culture is impossible.

Culture Is Shared

Although the combination of these conscious and unconscious elements can be blatant or subtle, culture is always part of organizational life. It’s possible to be unclear about what a culture reinforces, but it is impossible for an organization not to have one. It provides the cohesiveness people need to function together and is conveyed through a number of practices, including the following:

  • Oral and written communications, such as presentations and email
  • Organizational structure, as reflected by line and staff relationships
  • The way power and status are defined, both formally and informally
  • What is measured and controlled, such as time, productivity, safety, and quality
  • Formal policies and procedures found in employee manuals and official communications
  • Reward systems, such as compensation plans and supervisory techniques
  • Stories, legends, myths, rituals, and symbols, such as company heroes, award banquets, and corporate logosnew+arrows
  • The design and use of physical facilities, including how space is allocated and furnished

While culture is shared, it is not the same across all parts of the organization—a close look will always uncover a series of subcultures. Ideally, these are consistent with one another, and with the overall organizational culture. For example, if the sales force focuses on building long-term relationships, Customer Service should not approach customer interactions as purely transactional. At the same time, in well-functioning cultures, each subculture reveals its own mindsets and behaviors that allow its members to function together, and to relate to other areas of the organization. The sales force may invest in significant face-to-face meetings with their clients in order to propose specific solutions to their needs. Customer Service, on the other hand, may work remotely to solve specific problems as expeditiously as possible.

Culture Is Self-Reinforcing

Whether the influence is unstated or overt in nature, a corporation’s cultural mindsets and behaviors serve as a powerful means for defining, justifying, and reinforcing ongoing business operations. This self-reinforcing cycle is depicted in the graphic.

Culture provides ways for people to understand important decisions. Based on this understanding, expectations develop that limit possible responses. Those responses cause people to make certain decisions and behave in accordance with those expectations, confirming and reinforcing the culture’s original patterns. This process bolsters a strong corporate identity. However, it can also restrict the introduction of new mindsets and behaviors that may contribute to success in a changing environment.

Next:  What Role Does Culture Play During Change?

Posted on: August 02, 2011 08:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish."

- Euripides



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