Why Culture Change Programs Don’t Deliver . . . Another Viewpoint


There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. ~ Mark Twain

Richard-DawsonThere is a very popular TV game show in American culture called  Family Feud which features two competing families must name the most popular responses to a survey question posed to 100 people in order to win cash and prizes. Not only are the survey questions funny and entertaining, but so are is the composition of some of the families as contestants.  And of course the long running host, Richard Dawkins, adds to the merriment and laughter. TV Guide named Family Feud one of the 60 most popular television shows of all time. The most iconic phrase of the show, which has been used by many of us in our lives, is . . . “Survey Says . . “

Survey Says . . .

No matter which “expert” group you read or speak with; academics, Big 4 Consulting, McKinsey, HR professionals and corporate culture gurus, the same statistic is heard. “Most culture change programs fail”. In actuality, they are right.  Most culture change programs, whether designed and led by consultants and other outsiders, or organised internally, fail to deliver on what is really desired, a culture (how things get done) that better matches and supports the delivery of the business strategy and at the same time increases employee engagement and overall accountability for performance.

That in itself is a tall order, but the moniker, “culture change” really is a proxy for a better way of ensuring the company wins in the marketplace.  After all, the goal is not just to have employees feel better about themselves, each other or management (that may be a valuable by-product), the real objective is better competitive performance.

And if you look at it that way, through the lens of those with P&L responsibility, it’s no wonder most fail to deliver, they aren’t really designed around the realities of the business.  And interestingly enough, many if not most performance improvement activities have a difficult time delivering sustainable results because the current culture can be a significant barrier to change.

It’s complicated!

So, most everyone agrees that “most culture change programs fail”. But what they don’t really understand is WHY?

WHY and HOW?

taking apart toasterWhen I was a young boy I got into a heap of trouble for taking apart the toaster. The automatic pop-up feature was broken and it was “Johnny to the rescue”. I was smart enough to unplug it, and I knew the outcome I wanted, but the whole thing was a disaster, and I can still recall the angry lecture from my Dad.  The fact was, I knew the end result, but didn’t understand the mechanics of how a toaster worked!

And I believe the same is true of those who attempt to “change culture”!

You can change culture, or better yet reshape it to better fit your business and people requirements, if you know the principles that build, shape and sustain corporate culture.

While there are many things that help a company culture develop and become “real”, if you want to reshape your culture there are three critical elements of “how culture works” that need to be thoroughly researched and understood.

These three elements, or what I call Major Levers for Culture Change,  are Leadership Alignment, Informal Social Network, and Internal Work Policies/Processes.

3 Levers

Too often culture change programs focus on one of these levers, usually it’s around leadership alignment.  Since “organisations are shadows of their leaders”, that is indeed am important change lever, but it is not sufficient to bring about real sustainable change.

And most “culture change experts completely miss the fact that informal social networks, peer pressure to conform, and the human need for belonging to a group or “tribe” are powerful drivers of corporate culture. The reality is, there is no such thing as a single corporate culture.  Instead an organisation is composed of many different subcultures which may or may not be aligned with the overall business strategy and company values.

And the sad fact is, most senior executives have no clue where the subcultures are and whether or not they are an asset or a liability.

The third lever, internal work proceses and policies is usually where most culture change programs fall short.  It’s hard work looking at policies and processes and determining whether or not they promote the behaviours we need, or drive the wrong kind of behaviour. And few senior executives have the courage to change such ingrained policies.  For example, the culture of banking would be entirely different if the bonus and compensation systems were revised and hiring profiles were changed.  But in most companies, changing policies, even ones driving the wrong behaviours, is taboo!

For a sustainable culture shift, all three levers must be thoroughly understood, researched, and focused on when designing a culture change program.

I am reminded of my favourite Meatloaf song, “Two out of three ain’t bad!”  A great song, but not a winning formula for culture change. All three change levers must work together, synergistically, to bring about a sustainable culture shift.

 Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

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 john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
This entry was posted in consulting, corporate culture, leadership, Organization Behavior, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s