Corporate Culture: Change or Evolve?



During my undergraduate and graduate years (1966-1974) I studied marine biology, population ecology and evolution at the University of California, Harvard and the University of Hawaii.  In those days my heroes were Charles Darwin, oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and Harvard professor E.O. Wilson. During the summer of 1971 I was fortunate enough to attend the Organisation of Tropical Studies in Costa Rica, but it was many years after I left marine biology for a business career that I visited Tierra del Fuego and the Galapagos Islands.  To a former marine biologist and ecologist, Tierra del Fuego and the Galapagos are the spiritual homes of Darwin’s theories on the evolution and diversification of species.

For a period of over 100 years since the publication of The Origin of Species by Darwin in 1859, evolution, the gradual adaptation of life forms to new and changing environments, was a hot topic for both scientists and laymen alike. Evolution implies a slow process, fuelled by genetic diversity, of adaptation to new and different environmental circumstances. Simply put, genetic diversity in a population favoured some individuals over others in the game of survival, who then populated the next generation. In a stable environment over long periods of time (millions of years) there is little need for diversity and evolution tends to reach a peak of adaptation. But as the external environment shifts (gradual warming or cooling for example) or a species enters new environments (like the Galapagos Islands), diversity within the population gene pool allows those best suited to survive and reproduce.

Today the fascination with the slow process of evolution has been replaced with a focus on speed of changerapid change. Changes in technology, lifestyles, information availability, communications and political events occupy the news, education and our everyday lives.  And its rapid change we are experiencing in this new millennium, not the slow pace of evolution. Everything seems to be changing at an exponential rate, which is difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to assimilate.

Corporate Culture and Culture Change:

Since the mid-1980s the concept of corporate culture, and more recently the growing focus on culture change, has been the hot topic in business.  In other words, companies have to change to keep up with the rapid changes in the marketplace and technological advances. Not only do they need to change their product mix/features, or change their organisation structure, but the culture (how employees work and behave) needs to change as well.

And therein lies the difficulty.  Strategy and structure are easy to change, culture (people’s beliefs and habitual work behaviours) is much more difficult to change.  And many of the culture change models are based on the concepts of changing from one fixed thing to another, the old to the new, a toxic culture to a good culture, a low-performing culture to a high-performing culture.

Slide068The classic change model of Kurt Lewin, unfreeze-realign-refreeze, is the standard foundation for almost all culture change approaches. And CEOs who decide that a new culture is required want it done quickly.  Most culture change programmes have a fixed time frame, a fixed budget and limited resources.  After all, the business has to keep firing while we “change the culture”!

But the sad fact is, culture change programmes based on this  classic “change” model don’t seem to work very well. Very few deliver real culture change. And the worst problem is, if they do finally succeed in reshaping the culture, the marketplace doesn’t stop changing.  It’s a “never catch up scenario” and most companies are too exhausted to go through another culture change programme right away.

Evolution and Adaptation: Organisational Agility

Here’s another approach. Instead of big culture change, why not begin now to evolve a culture that is based on individual and organisational adaptability and agility?  Start forming flexible teams who come together, attack issues, solve challenges, then disband or reform with others for different challenges. Start hiring leaders who are agile, quick learners, open to new ideas, constantly looking to improve things, curious about new opportunities.  New research has shown that learning agility is very closely correlated with both personal business success and organisation success (KornFerry).

Agile org

Bring more diversity of thinking and ways of working into your workplace to capture new ideas and foster innovation. Focus more on the market and customers and less internally on politics and positioning. Break down hierarchical decision-making.  Create more open dialogue and transparency. Encourage new ideas and rapid prototyping of new products and services. Experiment with new ways of doing things. Become as dynamic as the markets you are serving.

When the pace of change on the outside exceeds the pace of change on the inside, the end is near.  ~Jack Welch

Build an adaptable, agile culture that is continuously tracking with the changing needs of customers and the changing global marketplace. And once you do, you will find that agile cultures are quicker to respond to external changes, without the need for big “culture change programmes” or expensive culture change consultants!

Posted by:

John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid


PS: John also writes thriller novels


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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