Instant Culture Change?

A few years ago we were about to develop a performance improvement process for a company in Florida.  The CEO was fully engaged and ready to lead the process.  The need was definitely evident:  information was not flowing between departments, turf wars and resource battles were rampant.  The result was a decline in sales and customer satisfaction.  The most common word used to describe other parts of the company was “them”.  Definitely a “them vs us” culture which was sapping productivity and draining everyone’s energy, as well as negatively impacting business performance.

A week before we were to begin, there was a fire at night and their office building burned down.  Needless to say, our process was cancelled as the CEO and the management team scrambled to find new office space and get up and running again.

I met the CEO about 6 months later and heard a story that significantly shifted my thinking about culture change.  Here’s what he said:

“The only space we could find quickly that fit our needs was a large, open plan arrangement, all on one floor in an industrial complex.  I looked at this big empty space and suddenly had a thought.  What if I use this catastrophe to make some changes in how we work?”

“I set up the space so that people had to interact with each other, departments that were previously at war I located together, and I put all the executives in the middle of the warehouse, in open cubicles.  We built a few closed meeting rooms for external client meetings, but all internal meetings were held in our open conference rooms in the middle of the warehouse.  If this had been a planned change the griping would have been non-stop.  But since it was an emergency and everyone was focused on keeping the company working and servicing clients, there was no time to complain!  They just got on with it.  And, they got on with each other!  These past six months have been the most enjoyable and productive I can remember.  People are more relaxed, there is more laughter, friendship circles have expanded, and ideas are bubbling up.  It’s a real culture change!”

He then added something.  “I wouldn’t recommend burning down your company to shift the culture, but what we really did was change the way people work.  It was our work processes that were causing us to behave so badly.”

We should all think twice before using training alone to shift a culture.  What behaviours are the business processes in your company fostering?

Tight Lines . . .

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to Instant Culture Change?

  1. Pingback: New Year Resolutions and Change Management | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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