The myth of culture change

myth of culture changeA lot of people talk about culture change in organisations. “We want our place to have an innovation culture!”. “Our leaders keep telling us about culture change initiatives”. “The problem with that company is its culture”. “How do we copy Google’s culture?”. You hear these phrases all the time. People write books, go to conferences, and pour out hundreds of articles and blog posts about culture. And I believe a lot of it is nonsense. I’m not saying organisational culture doesn’t exist or that it isn’t important. I think it does and it is hugely important. But people don’t understand what it is, where it comes from and how it works.

Four lenses of organisational analysis

I did a great subject in my Master’s degree called “Organisational Analysis and Design”. It was pretty theory-heavy and abstract, but I had a good teacher and I found it fascinating. It was basically looking at where organisations come from, how they operate, and why they work (or fail to work). At the beginning of the subject, we were told that you could look at any organisation through one of four lenses:

  • Structure – the formal lines of demarcation, responsibility and management in the organisation
  • Power – the formal and informal relationships of power between people in the organisation
  • Culture – the formal and informal artefacts and behaviours of people in the organisation
  • Human Resources – the policies and procedures for hiring, firing, promoting, rewarding and training people.

We spent a lot of time looking at structure and power. Towards the end we talked a bit about human resources. But there wasn’t much on culture. I thought it would be a big part of the course. Finally, the teacher came around to it. He asked everyone to put their hand up if they’d been in an organisation where someone had attempted a big “cultural change” initiative. Like an “all-hands” or similar big meeting, with lots of shiny presentations about culture, lots of talking and music and enthusiasm for a “new culture” that was coming. A lot of people in the class put their hands up. Then he asked us to keep our hand up if it had any effect whatsoever. Everybody put their hand down. Cultural change initiatives fail because they have no chance of success. This article will explain why.

Why cultural change initiatives fail, always

In the 1980s, two business “gurus” called Tom Peters and Robert Watermann published a best-selling book called “In Search of Excellence”. This book said that the really successful companies (at that time they were talking about companies like IBM, 3M, Disney and Walmart) had a specific culture. And that culture is what made those companies successful. So if you wanted to become successful, you just had to copy that culture.

Of course, lots of people tried, and nobody got anywhere. So what’s going on here? Why do attempts to change the culture of an organisation always fail? The answer is so simple it is staring you in the face, but almost nobody knows it: Culture is not a cause of success, but an effect. Those companies didn’t adopt a culture and then end up being successful; they were successful companies, and they then ended up with a certain culture.

Or as my teacher put it: you don’t change the culture of a company in order to then change how the company works (i.e. the structure, the power relationships, the HR processes). You change how the company works (i.e. the structure, power relationships and HR processes), and you then get a certain culture.

Culture is an effect, not a cause

Culture is something you get, not something you create. It’s not a lever, it’s not a part of a machine, it’s a window into the soul of a company. It is a manifestation of all of the rules, policies, patterns and systems that make up the company. If you’re not convinced, think about it this way.

Google is known for its famous “engineering culture”. A culture where top engineers ensure that everything they build is rock solid, scalable, performant, and (relatively) bug-free. How did Google get this culture? Was it through managers deciding this one day and sending out some powerpoints and sending people on training? Or was it maybe because Google:

  • only hires the very, very, VERY best engineers and trains and rewards them well (i.e. their HR system)?
  • structures the organisation around small engineering focused teams (i.e. their structure)?
  • empowers engineers to make the right engineering decisions, even if they are at the expense of product or profits (i.e. power)?

Those are things that Google changed, and no surprises, they ended up with an engineering culture. Not through culture change; through organisational change.

Or to look at a less pleasant example, consider Enron. This was a company where (before it collapsed) there was a culture of lying, manipulation, deceit, cover-ups, and total bastardry. These were people who ripped off investors, lied to governments and regulators, and high-fived each other when they saw footage of natural disasters, because it increased their profits. Do you think Enron specifically chose and implemented this culture? As part of a change initiative? Or rather it came about as a result of:

  • structuring the organisation to isolate and blind-side corporate governance and ethics?
  • empowering a small cadre of ruthless liars and manipulators?
  • hiring, promoting and rewarding people who fed into this system?

This makes cultural change hard

Changing culture is, therefore, hard. It’s not a lever and you can’t just pull it. You have to go and change the structure, the power and HR systems of your organisation. And that stuff is called Organisational Change Management (OCM) and it is difficult. People spend years doing it. You can’t fix it with brown bag sessions and shiny documents and team-building. Ask anyone who works in OCM. It requires hard work and tough decisions and redesigning the organisation. This will mean treading on toes, breaking eggs, and all the other metaphors. It might mean sacking people, shutting down product lines, mashing together or breaking apart business units, and other genuinely difficult tasks. So senior managers throw their hands in the air and take the easy route, “cultural change”. Which is just moving the problem, to somewhere where it won’t get solved.

It doesn’t mean we should forget culture

So talk of “culture” is just a joke, right? And we should just give up? Not at all. Culture is important and we can’t forget it. But we should start thinking about it is a lagging indicator: it tells us how we are progressing in our attempts to change the other three aspects of an organisation. It is an important clue to the other harder changes you might be trying to bring about.

Death marches

A classic example is late nights and death marches. We’ve all heard stories of (or directly experienced) places where working to 9 pm is the norm, and managers take names of people who leave before 7 pm. This culture is obviously not a good or sustainable situation. So how did this come about and how do we fix it? The superficial view of culture would just say managers must have implemented this culture, and managers can therefore just change it back. Managers would probably get a document encouraging them to have “conversations” with their staff about “alternative work-life balance plans” and encouraging people to “find some extra time to spend with their families”. Which is, of course, lip service and will achieve nothing.

If we think about our lenses, it might become clear that this culture has emerged because of power: more specifically, developers are not empowered to choose their own work. Which means they can be bullied by dev managers or product owners to work overtime. Remember, in Scrum, the developers choose how much work to pull into the sprint. They are empowered to control their work and not be sent on death marches.

So if you change the power relationships, and empower the developers to choose and control the amount of work they commit to doing, the death march culture should go away. Unless of course people really want to work those crazy hours. This might happen at a start-up or small business where the employees have a lot of equity in the firm or “skin in the game” (i.e. a function of rewards, which is part of human resources). Or developers are theoretically empowered (i.e. by formal power relationships) to choose their own scope but are influenced or coerced into working those hours (i.e. by informal power relationships). Which usually suggests a structural or HR problem (incorrect reporting lines or incentive systems). So that is where you would look to fix this situation.

Culture is important but not in the way you think it is

In summary, culture is definitely important and you shouldn’t dismiss it. But next time you see people talking about an “agile culture” or a “startup culture”, think a bit harder about that concept. It can’t be imported, exported, copied or even translated. Culture is how people behave when you put them into a certain system. Change the system, and you’ll get a different culture. But you can’t change the culture without first changing the system, and that is harder than most people realise.

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