Most managers and management consultants recognize the importance of organizational culture, but few have any idea how to support it, evolve it, or change it. A recent Booz & Co report, “Culture’s Role in Enabling Organization Change,” reveled that 60% of C-suite execs surveyed believe that culture is more important than their company’s strategy or operating model, with 51% saying that their culture needed a “major overhaul.” The survey also found, however, that culture isn’t a strategic priority in many companies and that failed cultural change attempts in the past are hindering future cultural transformation initiatives.
Of course, there are nearly an infinite number of reasons for why change initiatives fail. However, one seldom mentioned reason may be that the strategies and tactics used in change initiatives, while effective, are still suboptimal. Why? Because creating cultural change is not a management science, it’s a social science. The tips enumerated in the Booz report serve as apt examples (keeping in mind that the authors of the Booz survey are likely intentionally vague; their views on culture and cultural change are undoubtedly more nuanced than they appear in the report I’m referencing).
Diagnosing your culture and identifying cultural characteristics is a necessary first step in any change initiative. The Booz report suggests that such a diagnostic should be used pinpoint cultural strengths and weaknesses. Under this premise, however, we’ve already created an obstacle to cultural change. By labeling some cultural traits as weaknesses and others as strengths, we’re ostracizing employees whose behaviors don’t conform to our expectations. Yet, there may be valid and commendable reasons for some of the behavior that gives rise to cultural “weakness” that needs to be understood from different perspectives before it’s judged to be right or wrong. For example, a culture of rebelliousness and insubordination might be prized as a culture of autonomy and subsidiarity by some within the organization. Before targeting these attributes for eradication, we need to understand where they come from – because all cultural characteristics emerge from somewhere – and what potential benefits they may produce. It is the hubris of an ignorant manager that assumes that his or her perspective is always normative.
The “critical few” behaviors
As the Booz report notes, concentrating on changing a critical few behaviors rather than a multitude of behaviors often prevents cultural paralysis. Still, human beings are more likely to respond favorably when they understand the bigger picture. So, in attempting to change a critical few behaviors we have to remember to communicate our reasoning for focusing on those particular behaviors, emphasizing that all organizational behaviors are interrelated and interdependent. You’ll never be able to change the “critical few” if employees think those few were chosen based on a narrow agenda.
Employee pride and commitment
“Companies must find ways to connect workers to something larger that they can believe in,” notes the report, “including customer benefits or the satisfaction of beating a benchmark.” No change initiative can succeed without the active support of employees, who absolutely need something larger they can believe in. However, customer benefits or reaching milestones aren’t very large. A clearly defined and articulated corporate purpose, that spells out the benefits of a company to customers and society and sets the benchmarks to be achieved, is necessary to ensure sustainable commitment. Purpose is at the center of human motivation and if companies want to motivate their people, they have to clarify their purpose. This is what the Booz report intends to say, but is something that is said much better in The Clarity Principle by Chatham Sullivan – a psychologist – of Pivot leadership consulting.
Informal peer networks and mentors
The Booz report rightly notes that cultural change needs to be reinforced at every level, but wrongly asserts that culture starts at the top. Culture isn’t something that “starts” anywhere. It’s an emergent property of human social activity that arises whether we like it or not. If management ignores culture altogether, a culture will still develop. Most organizations have numerous subcultures that exist on every level in every department. These cultures and subcultures are reinforced by the rank and file without help or interference from management. Culture does not start with management, it includes management. Management, through its ability to influence structures, systems, and behaviors, has a disproportionate influence on culture, but to say that culture starts at the top is not only fallacious but an obstacle to understanding how real cultural change works.
Last but not least, storytelling (buzz word alert) – my favorite. Having studied theology and the psychology of communications in graduate school, I love storytelling. Indeed, nobody tells stories better than religions. The Booz report is right on in highlighting the importance of storytelling, but their perspective is incomplete. Stories are only part of the story. Religions have been successful storytellers because they don’t just tell stories, they build mythologies (see previous post on mythmaking versus storytelling). A story is a linear, contained narrative that can inspire and motivate. But, a mythology is an ecosystem of narratives that encompasses every aspect of an individual’s life, lifestyle, and culture. Mythologies connect stories into a broader, more comprehensive worldview. A story of an inspirational founder can be hugely motivating, but a mythology about that founder’s worldview can be much more powerful. The story of Jesus, for example, has inspired billions, but it took the Christian mythology created by those who came after Christ is what has allowed Christianity to survive to this day.
Despite a lack of social nuance, I found the Booz & Co report refreshing. I’m always heartened to see culture being taken seriously by corporate execs. However, as a social scientist, many of the insights in these conversations are realizations that came to the humanities hundreds of years ago, and so rather than view cultural change as a management science, I prefer to think of it as a social science.