Culture Change

May 3, 2016

Why do culture change programmes so often fail?
And what can we do differently?

A recent workshop in London with a group of senior HR professionals revealed that cultural change was very much top of the agenda for many of the organisations represented.

Why? Because everyone present worked in a company that was being challenged from multiple directions [which organisation isn’t?] and “the culture” was seen to be a critical element to get right in order for their organisations to respond effectively.

The points of view about what could be done about culture varied hugely – from “you can’t change culture” at one end to “culture needs to be designed to support the business goals” at the other.

Without wishing to add unnecessarily to the volume of words written on the subject there were a few interesting thoughts arising from our discussions last week.

Why culture programmes fail.

At best culture change programmes are a source of mild inconvenience and extra work; at worst they are a serious waste of time and hugely damaging to motivation and engagement.

Expressions of culture that are created in isolation and imposed on an organisation invariably fail to stick. They are often seen as out-of-touch, the latest management-speak, or an attempt to control.

Culture is not an end in itself but is in service of a desired future state, or at least readiness for a range of possible futures that may not be possible to predict in this changeable world.

What we might do differently.

We were happy to think about culture as “the way we do things around here”. It’s often difficult to pin down in words that everyone would recognise but where the culture is strong everyone knows what it is – for better or for worse.

The best attempts at distilling culture are those that attempt to identify what is good about the organisation and what needs to evolve. Questions like “how do we behave when we are at our best?” or “what are we proud of?” can be very instructive and affirming.

Connecting people strongly to purpose is likely to ensure that a positive culture emerges and is nurtured by all involved. Self-regulation linked to shared purpose is likely to be much more powerful than any external checks and balances.

Whilst the group couldn’t claim to have solved the conundrum we did at least feel that we had identified some critical success factors. No doubt this will not be the last musing on the topic!

DK April 2016

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