The flaw in trying to change a company's culture

Stop saying "we have to change the culture".

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.

Try changing small things. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496