Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Pitfalls of Culture Change

Source: http://hypotheticorp.org/management/culture/?goback=.gde_719177_member_127531607

Cul­tural change is a pop­u­lar past-time among con­tem­por­ary man­agers. The prom­ise that many man­age­ment books make is that chan­ging your organisation’s cul­ture will lead to organ­isa­tional success.

Man­agers eager to impress their dir­ect­ors will invari­ably imple­ment a cul­tural change pro­gram with the anti­cip­a­tion that it will increase pro­ductiv­ity, prof­it­ab­il­ity or any other noun end­ing in –ty. This prom­ise is made on the premise that suc­cess­ful organ­isa­tions all have a ‘good’ culture.

The idea that a good or strong cul­ture will improve busi­ness res­ults is also logic­ally non­sensical. The claim that a strong organ­isa­tional cul­ture will improve per­form­ance is tau­to­lo­gical. Any qual­i­fier of the word cul­ture will inev­it­ably be self-referential.

Inter­est­ingly enough, most cul­ture change pro­grams fail!

The reason most cul­tural change pro­grams fail is because cul­ture is an epi­phen­omenon of human inter­ac­tion. This means that cul­ture as such does not exist., it is a men­tal con­struct. Cul­ture is the effect of some­thing and can not be the cause of any­thing. The only place where cul­ture changes are always suc­cess­ful is in micro­bi­o­lo­gical labor­at­or­ies, where nerdy sci­ent­ists in lab coats poke around in pet­rid­ishes  and con­ical flasks to develop medi­cine, bio­lo­gical war­fare or just because they need a job. Back to human cultures.

Cul­ture is the res­ult of a whole range of phe­nomen­ons, such as people’s val­ues and beliefs. Man­agers more often than not focus on these aspects of cul­ture. They try to change the val­ues and beliefs of their staff by pout­ing ‘inspir­ing’ rhet­oric and pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment pro­grams. See our post on con­sult­ants for a view on this.

Cul­ture is an epiphenomenon

Cor­por­a­tions are gen­er­ally not demo­cratic organ­isa­tions and rely on a hier­arch­ical struc­tures. Cul­ture is thus driven from the top to the bot­tom and can there­fore only change to the limit of the val­ues and beliefs of the man­agers in charge. It is because of this that most text books on cul­tural change fail. In order to change cul­ture, man­agers need to first change themselves!

Because cul­ture is the effect of phe­nomen­ons it can not be the cause of any­thing — includ­ing cor­por­ate suc­cess. What can, how­ever, be the cause of cor­por­ate suc­cess are the aspects that under­pin a cor­por­ate culture.

How­ever, not all is lost. There are aspects of cul­ture that can be changed quite eas­ily. Other phe­nom­ena that cause cul­ture are rituals and cere­mon­ies, stor­ies and legends and mater­ial objects. This might sound like things that you only find in tri­bal soci­et­ies, but all cor­por­a­tions have them. Rituals and cere­mon­ies are expressed in the way meet­ings are con­duc­ted, birth­days are cel­eb­rated and everything in between. Stor­ies and legends relate to the his­tory of the cor­por­a­tion and mater­ial objects are the tools we use and the office we work in.

If a man­ager wants to change a ‘cul­ture’, then these phe­nom­ena are the start­ing point. Change these and the cul­ture will fol­low. Best example to illus­trate this are the often dis­cussed Google offices. By pla­cing people in the right envir­on­ment they will dis­play the right beha­viour. Super­mar­ket design­ers use these prin­ciples very suc­cess­fully. Telling the right stor­ies will cre­ate a sense of col­lect­ive and con­duct­ing the cor­por­ate rituals in the right way will act as an example of the desired behaviour.

The simple mes­sage is: don’t try to change a cul­ture, try to change the phe­nomen­ons that cause the culture.

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