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

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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.