Looking to Change Your Culture?

If you want to go from ‘good to great’ or create a high performance organization, you’ll probably need to address the culture.  Here’s what you need to know to get started.

  1. Culture plays a highly significant role in any company’s performance. The beliefs, assumptions and behaviors that comprise culture drive decision making, organization focus and personal accountability.  You cannot ignore the impact of culture, if you want a high-performing company.  Peter Drucker, Lou Gerstner (IBM), Jack Welch (GE), Andy Grove (Intel), Lee Iacocca (Chrysler), Steve Jobs (Apple), and many, many more successful CEO’s have publicly stated how important culture is to company performance.
  2. Culture is one of the only competitive advantages that cannot be easily copied by a competitor. When Dell took over the market for PC’s, Compaq and others tried to copy their approach, but failed. When Southwest began to significantly outperform every other airline, many competitors (such as United’s Ted) tried to copy their success, but failed.  the examples go on and on — The technology, the business processes, the IT platform — all can be replicated, but what they couldn’t copy was the culture that made it all come together.
  3. If you introduce an initiative that goes against the culture, bet on the culture. Look at George Fisher and his huge success at Motorola followed by his failure to turn around Kodak.  The reason?  Culture.  If the initiative is important, you must either alter the initiative to be more in-line with the culture, or alter the culture.
  4. Act your way to a new way of thinking. The most difficult part of changing culture is altering management behavior and employee attitudes.  Trying to get them to think their way to a new way of acting just doesn’t work.
  5. Simplistic approaches almost always fail.  Such as bringing in a new executive or launching a communications campaign.  In fact, they can backfire with the culture co-opting the new executive, or rejecting the executive, much as a host rejects a transplanted organ.
  6. You cannot change your culture unless you first know what the current barriers are. One common barrier in nearly all companies I work with is this:  Most senior management teams are guilty of creating or at least maintaining the culture they say they want to change.  Most executives do not want to be confronted with accurate feedback about the culture and how they are perceived, but if you truly want the culture to change, it’s imperative that the senior team understand what is, accept it, and commit to changing it.  If you want the culture to change, the senior management group is the first roadblock.
  7. Changing the culture, if done well, does not add to the workload of managers. If you begin a culture change initiative, you can count on managers compaining that they have too much to do already just getting today’s work done.  They’ll want to know where they will find the time and energy for this new initiative.  The good news is that, if you’re doing culture change the right way, there is no new or additional work because it involves doing the same work differently, not adding work.
  8. Push a few things ahead a mile, instead of moving many things forward an inch.  My best clients focus on a very few cultural themes at any one time. Too many and you’ll get nowhere.  For example, you cannot build accountability, increase collaboration, ramp-up innovation, drive do-it-right-the-first-time, and push people development all at the same time.  You will have absolutely zero success.  You’ll be much more successful selecting one or two for this year, and bringing in others in subsequent years.

Culture change is not easy, but it can be successful with the right approach, several specific management tools, and a focus on a few well-chosen organization-wide initiatives.  If you want to learn more, give me a call.
Copyright Bob Legge 2010

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