Corporate Culture and False Assumptions

Jordan on failure

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.  ~Henry Ford

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 defence 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 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, the culture change was a complete failure. Dick Millman, the then CEO of the parent company and I laugh about it now, but it was painful then. The only thing that changed was the calendar date. 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 smart?

 8 Culture Change Assumptions that are Wrong

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 we all intuitively believe that culture impacts performance, most of the academic studies are based on correlations, not direct cause and effect. A lot more work needs to be done here. Don’t always assume that improving culture is the best way to improve performance.
  • Culture is the problem to be fixed. How do you know the problem is culture? It could by bad pricing strategy, wrong sales incentives, or a dozen other business issues. 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 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 machines.
  • Culture change is another business project. “Culture is not an initiative, it is the foundation that powers all initiatives.” 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. People don’t change their values when they come to work, but they can and do change their behaviour. All experience points to the fact that internal policies and procedures drive work behaviour as much, or more, than personal values. “I want to serve the customer, but I am too busy filling out forms and preparing reports for management!” Be ready to rethink, lean and streamline everything you do so that new internal processes will drive new behaviors.

My advice:  Think long and hard before embarking on a culture change effort. And if  you are not prepared to “go the distance”, don’t start!

And if you are prepared, find an advisor who has done twenty or more culture change projects, not just read twenty books about culture change!

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

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 or
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