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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 25-Oct-06


Wednesday 25-Oct-06

Cultural change -- or not

Not long ago, a friend told me a story about an attempt to change the culture in the company where he was working -- that failed. The tale started when business was getting bad and he was co-opted onto a cross-functional team to find out what was wrong and recommend a solution.

The team met, got fired up about helping, decided to engage the organization and went out to talk with everyone in the company. Lots of ideas were gathered, but in looking at these, nothing substantial was found -- a step change was needed, but all that they had was lots of small improvements.

In a team down point when they realized that a magic answer had not appeared, they noticed that many of the comments were niggles about how slow and difficult it was to get decisions made, how meetings would go on for ever with no conclusion and how nobody seemed to really know what was going on. The magical penny dropped when someone said the word 'culture' and the team realized that the problem was not so much a single structural issue but rather a deep malaise that went through the organization and all the way up to the top.

The solution they devised was quite elegant, with a simple system of improvement projects to tackle the visible structural issues, whilst the real problem of cultural change was addressed through a simple communication project and a powerful feedback clamp. The real lever of change was to be a quarterly cultural review, not done by the top team (they were a key part of the problem), but with a combination of a bottom-up survey and an externally-driven, top-level assessment. The idea was that an external expert would come in each quarter to assess the top team and determine their cultural position. This would then be used, in tandem with the bottom-up survey as a mirror to hold up to the team and facilitate an honest discussion that would lead to inner changes in understanding and hence outer changes in behaviour.

Fired up by this, the team went along to the senior manager to explain this plan. He showed understanding and seemed impressed. He then asked that the idea be presented to his executive team the next day. Believing that they had buy-in from the top, the team went along to show the plan. What happened next, however, was both predictable and disappointing.

In the executive team meeting, the plan was presented, but then, rather than endorse the ideas, the senior manager asked for 'thoughts'. After a very muted response, he went around the table, where the culture of indecision showed itself to the full, with comments such as 'Well, I don't know about that' and 'I think we should consider this more carefully'.

The result was that the entire plan was kicked out (or rather deflated through lack of support). In its place was a vague determination to 'better understand the culture'. Which, unsurprisingly, came to nothing.

So what happened? The plan was sound but the impossibility was in asking the top team, including the senior manager, to change themselves. Whether through conscious design or not, the critical break was between the senior manager 'agreeing' privately to the plan and then not publicly owning it in his team meeting. He should have presented it to his team, visibly and passionately driving it forward. Instead, he got it presented by a junior person, where it was positioned very much as an option. Faced with the alarming thought of being assessed, it should not have been a surprise that the executive team did not buy the plan.

My friend and his improvement team were left wondering what it was all about. They had wasted many hours for nothing. Their faith in the top team (and particularly the top man) was shattered. They disbanded and either went back to their day jobs or looked for more fulfilling employment.

And the long, slow slide of the company continued.

Your comments

Very good example and learning for all of us involved in change mgmt. I had read about an experience of an OD consultant who had succeeded in integrating the diff cultures across Europe into the global organisation and was able to get everyone to perform according to the changed rules of the organisation. This failure highlighted has opened our eyes to the negative aspect.

-- Kary

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