Friction and Culture Change


I don’t know about you, but every once in a while I get a flashback from High School. Sometimes it’s about my lackluster sports career, sometimes about the marching band I played in, and occasionally about one of my classes. The other day, for no apparent reason, my high school physics class popped into my head (guess I was bored) and I began to think about the concepts we learned, and specifically the concept of Friction.

I must confess I didn’t recall all the formulas relating to friction, but I did remember the concept that to move one body resting on top of another, an amount of force greater than the coefficient of friction needs to be applied. It is interesting to note that the coefficient of friction cannot be obtained through calculation, but only through empirical measurement.

hockey puck on ice

As common sense would dictate, a steel block on ice has a relatively low coefficient of friction compared to a steel block on a piece of sandpaper. In other words it takes less energy to move the steel block across the ice than across the sandpaper. (that’s about the limit of my physics!).

In researching the topic of friction on the Internet, I came across this graph of the energy required to move one object across the surface of another.

Static_kinetic_friction_vs_time (1)

So? What’s the Point?

Looking at this graph and reconnecting with the concept of friction suddenly gave me an insight into Culture Change!

First of all, culture change takes a lot of energy, more than most CEOs and senior teams realize, and certainly more effort than most consultants inagine. In fact, it takes a lot of energy on the part of the senior team, middle managers and the “informal leaders” at all levels to break the force of old cultural habits ( = static friction) and begin to move the company towards a new set of work habits and behaviour patterns.  Just putting together a new set of Corporate Values and conducting a road show may sound like a lot of effort, but not much changes.

To break the grip of the old culture (I call it “cultural static friction”) requires focused effort to be applied all at once in many different areas. The senior team needs to change the way they interact with each other and with employees. Old company policies and work processes need to be revised to promote new behaviours. Hiring, promotion and performance reviews need to be rethought and changed. Informal leaders (those individuals highly respected by employees) need to be recruited to help instill new behaviours and attitudes. Those managers and supervisors who resist the new culture need to be coached in or out! The same goes for members of the senior team.

The good news, however, is that once leaders, managers and employees break free from their old unconscious cultural habits and small shifts in the culture (ways of working) begin to take place, it takes less energy to continue the process of reshaping a new culture (cultural kinetic energy). In this phase of the reshaping or culture change process, consistency is the key. Stop or back off on the new leadership behaviours, revert to old policies, avoid taking action on bad behaviour, and the strong force of static friction begins to take hold.

One thing I’ve noticed that is very different about the process of culture change from the model of overcoming friction, is that if you fail to keep up the effort and the old habits tend to re-emerge, it becomes harder to break free again. In other words, the force of cultural static friction becomes greater, since people are now more cynical and skeptical of management’s real commitment to change!

breaking free popupIt takes leadership and effort to break free from old cultural habits, but the effort can definitely be worth it.

Posted by:

John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution
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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1 Response to Friction and Culture Change

  1. Pingback: Leadership, Friction and Culture Change | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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