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
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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.