How does an organization’s culture change?

Consultants, trainers, change managers and OD consultants do not and cannot change the culture of an organization. I see that as common sense. Yet common sense is not so common.

(As an aside, this morning I read a fascinating article about back pain; if you take 1000 people off the street to give them an MRI-it is impossible for orthopaedic surgeons to predict whose back actually aches. Yet diagnostic tests for back pain are more numerous than cultural change programs).

In this post, I want to share with my readers how an organization’s culture actually changes.

1) External regulation-when the regulator steps in to dictate change, cultures start to change because things must be done differently. Safety and financial regulators are effective culture changers.

2) A one time success changes a culture, often by dumbing the organization down, lowing the level of awareness, or making it overly fat and out of touch with the changing needs of its customers. Similarly as Terry Seamon points out below in his comments, a huge failure can spark cultural change.

3) Massive immigration can change a culture by providing a ready made pool of talent that other global competitors do not have. The newly acquired competitive edge drives rapid growth which changes the culture.

4) Too much cultural socialization as well as an overdose on making values explicit can change company culture by making everyone cynical and lowering the degree of caring people feel towards success. In one company I worked for, the overdose of getting people to “buy into decisions“ caused people to check out.

5) Customers force cultural change on organizations. When I work with Asian facing units as opposed to American or EMEA facing units, the huge impact of the customer on culture is clear. The American clients drive the need for documentation, stability and predictability whilst Asian markets drive down costs, encourage innovation and show tolerance for speed over quality.

What gives with CEOs and cultural change? It is my experience that replacing a CEO is not enough to drive cultural change, unless the CEO has the “tail wind” of an external factor.

And what about consultants, trainers, change managers and OD consultants?  Well, we are midwives, easing pain and nursing things along. Not quite side show Bob, but not the drivers of cultural change. And the more you realize that, the more impact you will have.






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13 thoughts on “How does an organization’s culture change?

  1. Allon.

    Simply and absolutely brilliant.

    In your short posting, I found more value than a library of books written by so-called thought leaders on change. I find your pragmatic encapsulation and your concise articulation a powerful antidote to the poison introduced by many of those writers.

    The matter of impinging external matters pressuring, forcing?, change is a vital and brilliant insight, Sir.

    Well done, Allon!

    Good luck in the New Year. And may you remain safe.


    Drive On!

  2. Agreed, Allon. To your list I would add one other item. Culture changes when the real leaders, those whom others follow, decide that things need to be done differently and start modeling differently.

  3. אלון,
    לטעמי, תפקידם של יועצים לפיתוח ארגוני אינו לשנות תרבות ארגונית. זה תפקידים של המנהיגים והמנהלים בארגון.
    תפקידם של היועצים הוא לשקף, להדהד, להוות סוג של מראה כדי להציג את הפער בין תוצאות רצויות לעכשוויות ולזהות אם הפערים האלה הם פועל יוצא של תרבות ארגונית שכבר לא מתאימה. מעבר להתייחסות הזו, אני מסכים עם שאר הפוסט. ארגונים לא משתנים מרצון. לרוב הם משתנים מחוסר ברירה. בטח בכל מה שקשור לתרבות ארגונית. אפשר לבחון את השינוי דרך מה שקורה עם me too הנורמות משתנות לא כתוצאה מרצון או הכרה ארגונית אלא כפועל יוצא של כוחות חיצוניים.

  4. One you may have missed, Allon, is the massive disaster scenario ala Boeing where a highly public failure has triggered a process of introspection and an effort to change how things are done.

    Good topic!

    Hope you are well and safe.

  5. I’m with Fred on this one (and Ed Schein): “culture and leadership are opposite sides of the same coin”.

  6. I first understood this outside in determinant when Chris Worley facilitated a large group where I was member. That was 2005. It seemed so ahead of time, as I look back. in 2020, 15 years later, the lack of commonsense is startling and stark.

    The vendors of cultural change, and the commerce of employee engagement seem much like those fMRIs of the orthopedics.

  7. Pingback: External factors that may impact the cultures of organizations as the plague unfolds | Allon Shevat

  8. Pingback: Allon Shevat-אלון שבט

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