The “Hidden” Assumptions Behind Culture Change


One of my greatest insights about culture change came early in my career from an assignment with AVCO Everett Research Labs.  Basically this was a defense technology “think tank” filled with pure research scientists and scientists “masquerading a managers”.  The issue to be addressed was serious infighting over research budgets, poor conversion of research funds into saleable ideas and products, plus a culture of mistrust and blaming.  Seen it many times before in a dozen other companies, including other AVCO companies.

To make a long story short (Dick Millman, the then CEO of the parent company and I laugh about it now, but it was painful then), the culture change was a complete failure.  The only thing that changed was time.  Basically, my assumptions about culture change, and this culture in particular, were all wrong, and I limped away with a deeper understanding that culture change is not a rational or logical process and doesn’t neatly follow a flow chart or programmatic, step by step approach.

Over the years I have rarely been tripped up by the “hidden assumptions” behind culture change. Once bitten, twice as smart?

The following are some of the assumptions that nearly everyone makes as they begin planning a culture change process.  And we all know what happens when you ASSUME:  “You make an ass out of u and me.  And many of these assumptions are just plain wrong.

  • There is a clear relationship between culture and performance:  While this is often assumed to be the case, and most of use intuitively believe that culture impacts performance, most of the academic studies are based on correlations, not direct cause and effect.
  • Culture is the problem to be fixed. The problem may not be one of the cultural characteristics measured, but an entirely different or related issue.
  • Culture can be changed.  There is a large body of evidence that says culture change is extremely difficult, risky and more often than not doesn’t really work.  You should think about smaller and focused changes that might have a higher probability of success.
  • The benefits outweigh the cost.  Very few (almost none) of the culture change consulting firms are willing to work on a “no gain, no fee” basis.  Identifying and measuring the actual financial and organizational benefits expected must be done early on and takes considerable skill and attention. There are very few examples of tangible ROI gains from culture change programs.
  • Culture change does more good than harm. All change efforts, but especially culture change programs, produce “collateral damage” of one kind or another that is often not anticipated and may create additional problems.
  • Culture change is a logical decision.  The big assumption here is that employees will change their working habits if it makes logical sense. Human change is emotionally driven and you are messing with social dynamics, not reprogramming equipment.
  • Culture change is another business project. If anything, culture change is a major leadership activity, not a management project and the CEO and senior team must be prepared to spend 40-60% of their time on leading, imbedding and sustaining the new culture.
  • Culture change is about values.  All experience points to the fact that internal policies and procedures drive culture as much, or more than employee “values” and leadership styles.  Be ready to rethink, Lean and streamline everything you do so that your internal processes drive the desired behaviors.

 Those who reach senior management positions in most organizations (certainly in the US, UK and Western Europe) are skewed from the natural population distribution of behavioral types described on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and other behavioral profiles.  Typically few are people-centric or perceiving types, the majority being extroverted, logical and judgment types. This skews how management teams think and work and when making decisions around change they are more likely to put emphasis on the business case for change, and less likely to consider or worry about the effect on people.

resistance1“What does NOT work in changing a culture? Some group decides what the new culture should be. It turns a list of values over to the communications or HR departments with the order that they tell people what the new culture is. They cascade the message down the hierarchy, and little to nothing changes.”      ~ John P. Kotter, Harvard University

 Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

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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6 Responses to The “Hidden” Assumptions Behind Culture Change

  1. I believe in your conclusions on #3 John. Culture change, esp rapid one, is fraught with challenge. In cases where you need paddles to the chest and company/group/division is on life support, perhaps necessary. I others, I believe you are squarely on point.


    • Thanks, David. Right on about those companies facing bankruptcy or getting dangerously close to the “cliff”. There a full scale shock treatment on all fronts is required. This post happens to come from one of the chapters of my new book, The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture. Hopefully I will finish the blasted thing soon! Take care…


  2. beldenmenkus says:

    John, Great post. Too often the almost impossible nature of real, lasting culture change is overlooked, leading organisations to waste huge amounts of time and money, and damaging senior management credibility in the process. Keep up the great work.


  3. Pingback: What Kind Of Change Manager Are You? |

  4. Pingback: Why Culture Change Is Not Understood – With A Short Guide To Greater Understanding |

  5. Steve Borek says:

    I agree that culture change starts at the top. With the leader.

    Any time a client comes to me with a cultural change project, I always start with the leader.

    If the leader refuses to participate, I don’t take the gig.

    Without the leader modeling the way, the team will never change. The company will only be wasting their time and money.


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