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Home » Change Leadership, Recently Published Articles, Business Transformation, Culture, Leadership, Management

How Culture Kills Change, Part 1

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Culture Kills ChangeThe need for organizational change is ongoing. It never stops. It can’t, because just as you get a handle on one thing, something else pops up. It’s like trying to keep flies off your picnic lunch. There’s always one.

You have to be flexible. You have to be able to not just respond to the market, but also to anticipate it so that you’re not caught off balance. You have to watch for new players, too. Not only are entrepreneurs appearing from the most unexpected corners in your own country, but other nations are joining the foray. The West no longer has the influence it once did. Although the pie is bigger and growing, there are more people clamoring for a piece of it.

The very low success rate – something like 20% of all change initiatives experience it – has led to an emphasis on methods such as project management (PM). PM is one way of doing it, but even it overlooks a key piece – an assumption that can, and often does, kill attempts to change an organization. That critical piece is culture; and the problem is that all such initiatives assume that it can be changed as needed. The truth of the matter is that it can’t; and if you assume that it can, then you’re destined to fail before you even begin.

Depending on the size of your organization, it could take ages to change the culture. Although it takes less time to destroy a positive culture than to improve a negative one, neither outcome will happen overnight. And compared to the speed at which organizational change is expect to take place, it needs to.

How can you get your culture to align with the changes you want to make? You have to make sure that it’s there before you think about changing the organization at all. This is a problem for organizations that have a negative culture. You have to be very careful how you do it.

Many years ago, it became necessary to take draconian steps to change the culture of a US Air Force unit. (You may be able to relate to this story, but unless you were there or knew someone who was, you won’t have heard about it. Such things are not publicized.) Discipline in the unit was almost non-existent. The commander hardly ever came to work, preferring the golf course to the office. The officers and enlisted ranks were on a first name basis, and the place was generally a mess: an embarrassment to the Service.

Word of the state of affairs found its way up to the general’s office, and a no-notice inspection was organized. The unit commander was fired, the senior officer retired, and attempts were made to move everyone else to another location. Of the two dozen or so who worked there, only a handful or the original personnel remained after a few months.

This option is not available to the vast majority of private sector or even government organizations. This is for at least four reasons. The first is that you have to have a bona fide reason to fire people. You might be able to get rid of a few who have a bad attitude, but you can’t discharge half of the workforce.

The second reason is that you have to think of the reputation of your company. Your customers would probably flee in droves if you tried to pull a stunt like this, as you would if you heard about it from one of your suppliers or anyone else for that matter.

The third reason is that there is not enough skilled labor for everybody, and it’s not going to get any better. Short of recruiting people from afar, the employment pool near you is what you have to work with. Not only might they be unsuitable, but the ones that are may not want to work for you.

The fourth and probably the most important reason is that you can’t do it without suffering repercussions from those who are left in your organization. In a military unit, you can’t simply resign because you’re unhappy. But everywhere else, you can.

For all of these reasons, if you try to change your culture by simply replacing your workforce en masse, then whatever improvement you had hoped to make will fall off the organization’s continental shelf.

So if you can’t replace a significant number of your employees, then what can you do? It goes back to a mantra from the 1990s: hire for attitude; train for skill. Although there’s a shortage of skilled labor, there’s also a dearth of those with the right attitude. When you hire for attitude, you change your organization’s culture incrementally. It becomes what you wanted it to be in the first place, and it will continue for as long as your integrity remains intact.

Like an infection, it takes time for the antibiotics to work; but they will work. Just stay the course.

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Jesse Jacoby
The Editor of Emergent Journal and founder of Emergent, Jesse is a recognized expert in business transformation. He and his team partner with Fortune 500 and mid-market companies to deliver successful people and change strategies. Jesse is the creator of the Accelerating Change & Transformation (ACT) model and developer of Change Accelerator and Savvy Transition. Contact Jesse at 303-883-5941 or

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