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This blog is about culture change.

Culture Change

We need to change our culture“, said the CEO, “if we want to execute our strategy“.
We often talk lightly about culture change. We know that culture is a determining factor in strategy execution. It can be both a lever and an obstacle. Whenever culture change is an explicit part of strategy, it’s an expression of doubt. Leaders doubt that the strategy will find fertile soil in the current culture. And so, there’s a decision to change the culture. But it’s easier to write that in a plan, it’s much more difficult to make it happen.
Here’s a story to illustrate why we should not take culture change too lightly.

Story – The WARP Culture

A CEO was hired to turn an international creative agency. He came from a very successful retail company that had excelled. After 30 days in the business he gathered all managers of the new company and told them how the future culture would look like. He projected only one chart.  “This is our new culture he said”. There were 5 words on the screen: WARP, winning, agile, relentless, profitable. For fans of Star Trek, warp means a speed faster than light speed.

The managers in the room looked at each other with great unease. They knew these were the words that were used in his previous company. So their new CEO decided to just copy the culture of the retail company and paste it into the new company.
It got worse. In every meeting, managers had to declare their adherence to WARP. There were WARP-meetings, WARP posters, WARP messages, WARP gadgets, WARP stationery. After a couple of months people were fed up. There were many jokes about WARP. People talked about the WARP-zone. The Star Trek Quotes were abundant. When the CEO sent yet another WARP message, the parodies and cartoons immediately circulated. What did he expect? After all, he was working in a creative company.
The CEO was startled. He could not understand why people resisted . He was full of good intentions and yet people were making fun out of him. The people in the company rejected the WARP culture and the CEO had to leave at the end.
This story is based on true events.

So why is it so difficult to change a company culture?

  • Culture is Intangible

    Culture is intangible. You cannot touch it. But you can feel it. When you enter an organization you can inhale it. The way people greet you, the way they interact, how they walk, how they look at you, what they do, what they don’t do, the use of words, the gestures, the rituals … these are all emanations of culture.
    The consequence of this is that culture is the result of many big and small acts across many circumstances. Changing the values is too often a cosmetic operation.
    The CEO thought he could make culture tangible by introducing 4 words. The words meant nothing to the new company. Making culture tangible through words, gadgets, … does not work if people do not experience the culture first).

  • Culture is Robust

    Culture is robust and resists change. People who enter the company and announce they want to change the culture are most likely to fail. More, the culture will eat them.Why? Saying you want to change the culture is an insult to the people who have been working for years in a culture they love. So culture change will meet resistance, sometimes in a subtle way. Instead to impose culture leaders should work with the culture, embrace its strengths, integrate. Because culture is stronger than any individual leader.
    The CEO thought he could change the culture on his own. Personal energy is not enough to change culture. Culture change requires a great deal of effort and is a very slow process. The CEO wanted to force this, but the culture did not bend. It felt attacked and it defended itself. 

  • Culture is Collective

    Culture is the result of all behaviours people of a certain group display. It’s about shared ideas, habits, rituals. Culture gives people a sense of belonging, certainty, direction, norms. Culture is created by the behaviours of many people. So to change the culture, you need to change enough people. People need to learn new ways of behaving and unlearn others. We all know how difficult it is to unlearn.
    The CEO did not involve people. He started the change and surprised his managers with it. Instead he could have involved a group of enthusiast. In that way the change would not have been linked to his person, but would have been a collective endeavour.

  • Culture is Unique

    You cannot transplant a culture of one organization into another. Every culture is unique. Culture to an organization is what personality is to a human being.The biggest mistake this CEO had made was to make assumptions about the recipe of culture change. He just introduced 4 values that had worked in his previous company. There is no reason to believe these values would stick in the new company.

Unbearable Lightness

Because of the above reasons changing a culture is difficult. So if culture change is part of strategy, take care. It might even be better to adapt the strategy to the culture than vice versa. There is an unbearable lightness to the notion of culture change. Too often we think that if we change processes, technology and context, culture will follow. Too often we think culture change is a rational decision. And too often we think that culture is generic.
It will not. People who think it’s easy overestimate an organisation’s capacity to evolve (fast) and they underestimate people’s reluctance to change. That lightness is unbearable and very counterproductive. In a next blog I will discuss how culture change can be facilitated.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • Qazi Ata says:

    A beautiful article. In story, having a purpose, an attempt by a ceo, reasons for his failure.
    I would just add. Once our MD tried the same. He was not aware that how much difficult is a paradigm shift. Only the youngsters who were young nd master degree holders did change. But the majority nd mostly experienced lot did resisted. Though the change nd intention was great but it was made in hurry nd weakly communicated. Nd so on so on. At last the MD was changed.

  • Katrien says:

    Last week I learned from Vlerick prof. Peter de Prins:” culture eats strategy for breakfast”

    • Johan Roels says:

      From Peter de Prins, you’re kidding (I hope). The quote is widely attributed to another Peter (Drucker) and it’s not even sure that Drucker ever said that line. Ed Schein comes close to that idea in his book of 1985. Peter de Prins was 20 then and not (yet) professor…

  • Johan Roels says:

    Nice story and a proof of ‘my’ POV. If you want to change the culture of an organization, the ‘collective’ mindset of the organization has to change. This boils down that the majority of the people within the organization have to transform their own mindset.
    Culture Change is built upon MIndset Change thus Personal Transformation. “Nothing changes without Personal Transformation.” said W. Edward Deming.
    And how can we change the mind, since the mind cannot change itself? Looking forward to your next blog!
    I think you are familiar with Daryl R. Connor’s first book: “Managing at the speed of change.’ Although Daryl is the only author on the cover, I happen to know that two of his ODR Senior Consultants wrote different chapters of his book. Mitch Kotula wrote most of Part III and Charlie Palmgren most of Part IV.
    Regarding the subject of your next blog, I think that Chapter 10 of Daryl’s book “Culture and Change” is worth re-reading. This being said, I expect a brighter answer to “How to facilitate Culture Change’ from your side David than the answer that can be found in that chapter! After all, Daryl’s book turns 25 this year, since the copyright is from 1992.

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