How to change an organization’s culture

Is it possible to transform dysfunctional corporate culture like that of United Airlines into the employee engagement of Southwest or the indifferent customer service at Kmart into the customer-first approach of Wegmans?

After over thirty years working with organizations, I think that it’s possible to change organizational culture — but it’s far from easy.

First, many organizations are in denial that there’s any kind of problem with their culture, and getting leadership to think otherwise is an uphill or hopeless battle.

Second, if an organization does get to the point where “we want to change our culture”, there’s rarely an explicit consensus of what “needs to be” or “might be” changed.

Third, culture is an emergent property of the interactions between people in the organization, not a linear consequence of deeply buried assumptions that can be challenged and “treated” in isolation. Prescriptive, formulaic approaches to culture change, are therefore rarely if ever successful.

Finally, organizational culture self-perpetuates through a complex web of rules and relationships whose very interconnectedness resist change; even if you have a clear idea of what you want to do, there are no uncoupled places to start.

So, what might we be able to do? For concise advice, I recommend Chris Corrigan‘s excellent article The myth of managed culture change. Read it!

In particular, this excerpt caught my eye:

“Culture is an emergent set of patterns that are formed from the interactions between people. These patterns cannot be reverse engineered. Once they exist you need to change the interactions between people if you want to change the patterns.”
—Chris Corrigan, The myth of managed culture change

This is why process tools like those included in The Power of Participation are so important. Imposed, top down culture change regimes attempt to force people to do things differently, a process that Chris describes as “cruel and violent”. Participation process tools that allow people to safely explore interacting in new ways allow organizations to transform through the resulting emergent changes that interaction tools facilitate and support.

Image attribution: Animated gif excerpt from “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne