Why Culture Change is Like Cooking . . .


“I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.”  ~Julia Child

I must confess, I enjoy watching cooking programs on the lifestyle channels on TV.  It really doesn’t matter if its Italian, French, British, or Cowboy cooking (recently Jamie Oliver went to the US and did a segment on outdoor cowboy cooking).  My favourite shows, however, are the ones that mix cooking and travel to exotic countries.  Makes me want to pack a bag, hop a plane and go eat strange food and drink beer.

And every once in a while after watching one of the shows and taking notes, I try to recreate the dishes at home.  I’ve got the written recipe, I buy the same ingredients, I’ve got the right pots and pans, I’ve set aside the time. But somehow, it just never comes out the same as it looks on the TV programme and the taste is always lacking something.  Certainly not like my mind envisioned the dish. Usually a big letdown for my taste buds!

Knowing what vs why!

My problem with cooking like the pros is that I have “rented” knowledge and not “experiential or operational” knowledge.  I am not skilled at the real operational activities of cooking, like understanding when to turn off the flame when par-boiling or how long to beat egg whites to just the right consistency, or how adding a liquid when poaching fish changes the cooking dynamics.  These and a thousand other of the finer points of cooking can only be learned by experience, by doing, not by watching TV or reading a recipe.

Those who only know what will alway lose out to those who know why!  ~Thomas D. Willhite

 Culture Change and “Rented” Knowledge

A lot of companies embark on culture change believing that they need to change, but only have “rented” knowledge when it comes to the what, how and why of sustainable culture change.

Culture change is radically different from the type of change management practiced inside of many companies for IT transformation, process engineering change, supply chain changes, etc.  These are processes based on logic, data, analysis and changing from one set of systems and metrics to another.

Culture change, on the other hand, deals more with behaviours and human issues of trust and respect than with business processes and logic.  Corporate culture has multiple moving parts, not the least of which is the fact that there is no one single corporate culture.  What many of those with rented knowledge think of as the overall corporate culture is actually a collection of strong, and sometimes very distinct, subcultures.

subculturesAnd in many cases, these strong subcultures are very different from each other and not always aligned with the overall company direction or strategy.

Which then begs the question, how do you change multiple subcultures, each one being very different, and bring them into alignment?  

Ask those with rented culture change knowledge and they will revert to the standard organisation change methodology: top-down, leader-led communications and employee training around a new set of “corporate values”.

Does it produce lots of activity and initial interest? Yes.  Does it produce any lasting, sustainable shift in the culture? No.

Leadership influenceThose who understand that culture is really about behaviours and are experienced at culture change, use a very different approach.  Because they understand that subcultures are collections of people who believe and behave in similar ways, and that at the center of most strong subcultures there is usually an “informal leader” who is respected and trusted by those within the subculture.  And recent studies have shown that informal leaders have 4-8 times the social impact (eg., respect and trust) than senior management.

Want to reshape your culture?

Identify, recruit and deploy the informal leaders inside your organisation.  We call this, Viral Change. And by the way, they usually aren’t the people on HR’s “High Potential” lists.  The sad fact is, most senior executives have no idea who these informal leaders are nor can they identify the subcultures within their own company!

So, next time you want to make a fabulous Coq au Vin like Julia Child, remember the difference between operational knowledge and rented knowledge.  You might want to bring in a real chef, or take the family out to a good French restaurant.

And if you are thinking about culture and culture change in your organisation, seek out those who have just more than “rented knowledge”.

Better yet, give me a call and let’s discuss your situation in detail.

John R. ChildressN2Growth: President, Europe and Chair, Culture Transformation Practice

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014).

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com





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 john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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1 Response to Why Culture Change is Like Cooking . . .

  1. angulam says:

    excellent post and so true…


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