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

Leadership, management, and meetings


“Leadership is about the role of the catalysts in organizations who influence and shape both strategy and execution, while management is the discipline that guides how large numbers of people efficiently accomplish complex work. Organizations need both catalysts and discipline.

…leaders are facilitators and their defining characteristic is their ability to enable connections that drive effective collaboration among large numbers of people. When leaders are facilitators, organizations adopt the disciplines of self-organized networks that are designed to leverage collective intelligence.

…the biggest challenge for traditional organizations will be whether or not they can reinvent both leadership and management and transform themselves from top-down hierarchies to peer-to-peer networks.”
Forbes interview of Rod Collins, author of Leadership in a Wiki World: Leveraging Collective Knowledge To Make the Leap To Extraordinary Performance

I like how Rod distinguishes between leadership and management. Although he’s talking about organizations (he was the COE of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program with over $19 billion annual revenues) his definitions apply beautifully to the roles of leadership and management at participant-driven meetings.

Replace “organizations” with “meetings” in the quotes above, and you’ll see how Rod’s vision for the viable future of organizations becomes the same set of principles I’ve championed for effective, powerful conferences:

  • Supporting and encouraging conference participants to network & collaborate.
  • Using meeting designs that leverage the experience & expertise of the group.
  • Transforming meetings from top-down presentations to peer initiated & led sessions.

Isn’t that interesting?

How do you see leadership and management roles play out in your meetings? What works, what doesn’t?

Image attribution: From the classic paper by Paul Baran, “On Distributed Communications: MEMORANDUM: RM-3420-PR,” AUGUST 1964, the Rand Corporation

16 consequences of top-down conference process

Here are some consequences of concentrating on top-down (traditional) rather than bottom-up (non-traditional) conference process:

Big Brother 161678942_0d789fbdd3_b

  1. Everyone gets assigned their role in advance.
  2. Top-down implies that some people have “the knowledge”; the rest don’t.
  3. There’s less opportunity to engage attendees who aren’t invested; they can zone out as they choose.
  4. Passive reception of knowledge is the dominant learning modality.
  5. There may be less stress for attendees, knowing that no personal contribution is expected.
  6. There are, at best, few expectations for attendees, apart from paying for the conference.
  7. Tradition coupled to prestige confirms legitimacy—”this is the way it’s done”.
  8. The conference confers status by association; you’re a professional in this field, because professionals in this field go to this conference.
  9. Top-down imposes control of what’s going to happen: who speaks, who listens, who’s in, who’s out.
  10. Conference structure and content are fixed; they’re very difficult to change even if circumstances cry out for a different direction.
  11. The top-down model can put pressure on presenters, who may feel they need to be comprehensive, all-knowing, and coherent to justify the program committee’s choice of them as presenters.
  12. The power to create conference structure and session topics is confined to the conference program committee.
  13. Top-down supports and perpetuates cliques: the presenters versus audience, the old hands and the in-crowd versus the newbies.
  14. Everyone knows what is supposed to happen, minimizing fear of the unknown.
  15. The conference tends to mirror and/or reinforce perceived hierarchy or status in a profession or field—“here are the experts”.
  16. Meeting and connecting with like-minded people during the formal conference program is largely a matter of chance or careful preparation.

Image attribution: / CC BY-ND 2.0