A large part of my work entails helping companies leverage their culture so that it supports their mission, vision, and strategic objectives.
So when I first saw the April issue of Harvard Business Review, with its cover boldly proclaiming in bright red print: “You Can’t Fix Culture”, I was intrigued…
CULTURE CHANGE – A RESULT OF STRUCTURES AND PROCESSES?
After interviewing four CEOs who successfully led major business transformations, the authors of ‘Culture is not the culprit’, Lorsch and McTague, started to suspect that trying to fix culture to improve the business might be the wrong place to start.
Their findings led them to the hypothesis that the best way to transform culture is to… stop focusing on culture so much – and to focus on the business instead. And particularly on strategy enabling processes and structures.
In other words, they suggest that culture changes as a result of the way business is done, not the other way round.
(…) cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges like reworking an outdated strategy or business model.
Lorsch, J.W. & McTague, E. (April 2016) Culture is not the culprit. Harvard Business Review
While it may seem like Lorsch and McTague are turning the traditional approach to culture transformation on its head, they are simply reframing what we have known about culture for decades. Many well-established definitions of culture (Schein, 1992; Trompenaars, 1993; Denison, 1990) describe it as a set of underlying values, beliefs, and principles that have been discovered or developed by a group as a way of dealing with internal or external challenges. It can, therefore, be expected that processes and structures that work exceptionally well, will be eventually perceived as an effective way of dealing with challenges and contribute to a change in culture as a result.
CREATING A SCAFFOLDING FOR CULTURE TRANSFORMATION
I often refer to designing and implementing processes and structures as creating the ‘scaffolding’ for culture transformation. Any framework, process or structure that supports behaviour change and new habit formation can serve as a scaffolding.
The scaffolding is absolutely necessary because behavioural change is difficult – so difficult that people tend to resist it… even when they are under the threat of death! For example, studies repeatedly show that 90% of patients after coronary artery bypass, have not changed their lifestyle; a year after the surgery they continue with the very habits that led to a life-threatening disease in the first place.
On the other hand, according to the recent work of behavioural scientists such as BJ Fogg, people will adopt new behaviours much easier when they are motivated and able to do so. Good scaffolding supports the development of both the motivation and the capability to change.
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
In spite of what Lorsch and McTague were told by the interviewed CEOs, namely that ‘culture isn’t something you “fix”’, when reading the article you quickly discover that the CEOs didn’t limit their approach to focusing on structures and processes.
To start with, they all seemed quite clear about the culture they didn’t want. While it may be that their key concern was the specific business challenge, they were also very articulate about what kind of culture would make their company successful.
Ecolab’s CEO, Doug Baker wanted to minimize the expanding bureaucracy and restore customer-focus. Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta, saw the need of a radical shift from adversarial management-employee relationships to mutual loyalty and trust. Allan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford, identified the need to move away from defensive and disparate culture and move towards cooperative and connected one. Dan Vasela, the former CEO of Novartis, wanted to evolve the culture from narrowly-focused to customer-centric and performance-minded.
Breaking it down, it seems the way the CEOs achieved culture transformation was by asking themselves a series of really good questions about their business focus, culture aspirations, current and desired culture as well as what it would take to achieve the changes.
- What are the key business objectives and ‘must-win battles” for us right now? For example, for Ford it was bringing the company back from the verge of bankruptcy.
- What culture would facilitate achieving these objectives? In Ford’s case it was a collaborative culture where people work together towards a common objective.
- What is our culture today? In Ford it seemed to be a cut-throat, highly competitive culture, with distinct silo mentality.
- What are the key changes that need to happen in our culture for us to be successful? Ford’s Alan Mulally put his bet on cooperative and connected culture.
- What are the key behaviours that will produce desired culture shifts? Mulally identified sharing information and holding each other accountable as key behavioral changes.
- How can we support the desired behaviour change with appropriate frameworks, structures, and processes? Mulally introduced daily meetings for his Senior Management Team where people would share information and report on progress. He also streamlined business processes, appointing global heads for marketing, manufacturing, and product development.
Although the CEOs described in the article claimed that you can’t ‘fix’ culture, paradoxically this is exactly what they did.
We have been using a culture transformation process based on the questions presented above for years, witnessing culture shifts not unlike the ones described by Lorsch and McTague.
If you need help with evolving or transforming your culture, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
© Agnieszka Bajer, 2016
Denis, D.R. (1990) Corporate culture and organizational effectiveness. New York; John Wiley & Sons
Lorsch, J.W. & McTague, E. (April 2016) Culture is not the culprit. Harvard Business Review, p.96-105
Schein, E.H. (1992) Organizational Culture and Leadership: a dynamic view. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Trompenaars, F. (1993) Riding the waves of culture. London: Nicolas Brealey.