At some point, leaders will usually step in to try to solve the problem—cue the “culture change” initiative. However, despite the best of intentions, many such projects fail to achieve their stated aims. The reason they do so is because of the strong prevalence of three myths.
The first is the myth of insufficient ideas—in which leaders declare that everything would be better if the organization just had more ideas, better ideas, quicker ideas, or ideas that were easier to implement. This is facile. People usually have perfectly good ideas; it’s the way that the business is being managed that prevents useful ideas becoming useful reality.
The second is the myth of insufficient people. Many leaders will say: “We’re not getting value out of our people – there’s something wrong with them. We need more and we need better people who can think differently.” This can be damaging not only in human terms (it leads to people being sacked who would have been perfectly capable if only they had been led properly), but also financially.
The third myth is that a business’s culture is indefinable or intangible, and therefore is best changed by seeking to debate and develop it in the abstract. This ignores the reality that it is perfectly possible to describe and define an organization’s culture in very practical, accessible terms—if you’re willing to do the work.
Under the spell of these myths, management’s homegrown solutions tend to be of three types. In my practice we call them the “Killer B’s”. Each undermines culture change in its own special way.
The first “Killer B” operates on the premise that what is missing from your culture is an injection of new thinking, razzmattazz or excitement. The principal issue with this line of thinking is that it mistakes symptoms for root causes. A lack of exciting ideas isn’t causing your cultural problems, but it might be the result of them.
Still, the misunderstanding persists. Cue the creative brainstorm—or that most phosphorus of corporate endeavors, the vision or mission statement.
You know how it is. After lot of sitting on beanbags and mood-board creation by men with beards and women with terrific hair, a mission statement arrives, full of hyperbole. But a ball-bearings manufacturer in Ohio is not “reinventing the future of B2B” by doing what it does. Nor was WeWork “raising the world’s consciousness” by renting office space to millennials. These are empty desires, made ridiculous by being too lofty. They change nothing.
The second solution lies in the bypass, whereby people sneak outside the city walls and seek to concoct something new. This is the catalyst for self-regarding “innovation incubators” and—save us all—the “corporate start-up.” The end result tends to be that, when the new thing is dragged inside, it looks like an alien and those who weren’t involved gather round to kill it.
The bypass fails because it is fundamentally an admission of defeat: “We can’t change how people think and act, and the system itself, so we need to work around them.” This undermines the very premise of culture change.
Incidentally, traditional management consultancy often heads for the bypass in a different way, by trying to slash and burn job roles and sometimes entire functions to lower barriers to commercial success. This approach tends to create more pain, and again implies—wrongly—that culture change is a waste of time.
The third “Killer B” involves trying to find a person who will solve the organization’s cultural problems for it. This is the terrain of the Chief Culture Officer, and other generally well-meaning but misguided HR roles.
Again, there are two problems here: one, unicorns tend to be difficult to find and, two, without the right context in which to work, they often end up freezing to death or being lynched by the mob.
Ultimately, culture is the expression and outcome of the attitudes and behavior of the entire employee cohort. It is rare that one individual would have either the mandate or the ability to change that. (A rare exception does exist here: the high-powered CEO, whose influence can sometimes be broadly felt—for better or worse.)
So, what’s the answer?
First let go of the “Killer B’s.” They will have little positive impact, and in fact might serve to drive greater cynicism around the potential for the organization to change itself for the better.
Next, embrace the probability that your organization already holds the answers to every single problem that it has. They might not be immediately obvious, but your people have the ability to arrive at them. In reality, your colleagues are amazing: they just need prompting in the right way.
To do this, accept that conversation is key. Effective conversation begins with listening. So many of us feel the need to talk in meetings when we should keep quiet. Noise and blather is bad for introverts, bad for reflection, and awful for actually connecting with other human beings about what’s going on for them.
What conversations should you seek? Start with the fundamentals. Interrogate what stories are being told within your business, how social and financial incentives are influencing performance, and how well people feel they are being treated.
Culture change that sticks is primarily a question of getting the basics right. Indeed, in this context, “the basics’ might be the one “B” that isn’t a killer.