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The flaw in trying to change a company's culture

Stop saying "we have to change the culture".

Try changing small things. Photograph: Getty Images

Deciding you have to change the culture of an institution is apparently exactly the wrong way to go about changing the culture of an institution.

Here's Harvard Business review on the long, expensive, and ultimately ineffective process that happens when a manager says the dreaded sentence: "We have to change the culture around here."

Not many of them feel they know how to do that, so an army of consultants has obliged by creating processes for help. Most of these experts recommend beginning with a diagnosis of the present culture. After the diagnosis you need to get clear about where you want to head. That's another piece of work. Then you have to plan how you are going to get there.

Finally, when you are ready to get moving, the consultants are happy to jump aboard to help implement a multitude of programs — training, re-organization, systems redesign, and communications campaigns. A Google search on the term "organizational culture change programs" yields 273,000,000 entries.

The total effort generated by these processes is guaranteed to be complex and to cost huge amounts of time, money and effort. Some of these interventions may prove useful at an individual level, but sweeping, large-scale culture change efforts rarely cure those aspects of culture that were so frustrating in the first place.

There is another way, though. HBR write that as a company's culture comes from a range of dynamics that can only be dealt with one at a time.

The moral of the story is that a company need never sink resources into "culture change" programs. If they keep advancing an increasing number of performance improvements that empower their people — and if they distill and exploit the learning from their achievements — they'll wake up one day and discover that they are working in a radically new culture.