Define Your Path

7 Steps to Change Business Culture

My last posting talked about the silliness of debating whether strategy or culture is more important and why it is so critical to get these two dynamics aligned. When they are synchronized, the organization has a much greater chance of success. When they are divergent, however, the results can be disastrous. It is frankly amazing how many organizations do not seem to get this concept. The general lack of understanding around this concept is one reason I was so pleasantly surprised to pick up this month’s Harvard Business Review and find Katzanbach, Steffen and Kronley’s article on how to make culture change stick (2012).

While the article skips any formal definition of what culture is, it does provide some excellent examples of why effectively changing a culture in the right direction can be so critical. It also illustrates five steps for successfully changing a culture:

  1. Match strategy and culture
  2. Focus on a few critical shifts in behavior
  3. Honor the strengths of your existing culture
  4. Integrate formal and informal interventions
  5. Measure and monitor cultural evolution

While these five steps are a great start, but they seem to have missed two other important aspects of implementing a cultural change:

  1. Gain leadership commitment for the long haul
  2. Accept the fact that some people will not like the change

Far too often when organizations attempt to change, they forget that culture is a manifestation of the collective habits of the people in that organization. As anyone who has ever tried to change a habit can attest, this does not happen overnight. For small organizations it can take six months to year to change a culture, and for larger organizations it can take two years or more. Too many executives in business today operate on myopic time frames driven by quarterly reporting cycles, and get frustrated with initiatives that they feel take too long. While Katzenbach and company’s fifth recommendation does provide some way to measure the movement, it is imperative that the leadership understand that the initial movement on those metrics will be incremental at best.

The second item deals with the fact that no matter how well a change is managed, no matter how beneficial the results may be, and no matter how well those benefits are communicated; some people are just not going to like what is happening and they will decide to leave the organization. That is acceptable, however, because anyone who dislikes the change that much will likely not function well in the new organization. Moreover, they may encourage discontent in others that might otherwise be more willing to embrace the new culture. As such if someone doesn’t want to be there, let them go. Just make sure that there is a succession plan in place if they are a key performer. But then again, that is a good strategy no matter what the situation.

About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard. He is currently a Practice Area Lead with Beacon Associates.