Every once in a while, I read a book or an article, and think “Wow - now that is some excellent work with some fantastic insights!” Recently, I discovered another such article called “Cultural Change That Sticks” by Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen and Caroline Kronley in the July-August 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review. Some of you will remember the work of Jon R. Katzenbach in the book he coauthored with Douglas K. Smith called The Wisdom of Teams (Harvard Business School Press, 1993).
In this well written article, the authors explain that “many leaders blame their company’s culture for thwarting significant change initiatives, such as mergers or turnarounds.” As they continue, “But when they try to solve the problem by changing the culture, their efforts tend to fizzle, fail, or backfire.... What those leaders don’t see is that culture is highly ingrained in the ways people work - and that any company culture has assets. The secret is to make the most of its positive elements - to work with and within the culture, rather than fighting against it.”
Based on their research and client experience, the authors present five principles that can help an organization achieve higher performance, better customer focus, and a more coherent and ethical stance. They are as follows:
1. Match strategy and culture. “Culture trumps strategy every time no matter how brilliant the plan, so the two need to be in alignment.”
2. Focus on a few critical shifts in behavior. “Wholesale change is hard; choose your battles wisely.”
3. Honor the strengths of your existing culture. “Every culture is the product of good intentions and has strengths; put them to use.”
4. Integrate formal and informal interventions. “Don’t just implement new rules and processes; identify ‘influencers’ who can bring other employees along.”
5. Measure and monitor cultural evolution. “Otherwise you can’t identify backsliding or correct course.”
While reading this excellent article, I came across one of the best set of questions I have seen in the last two years. They recommend you ask the following two questions to your leadership group: “If we had the kind of culture we aspire to, in pursuit of the strategy we have chosen, what kind of new behaviors would be common? And what ingrained behaviors would be gone?” Brilliantly simple and wonderfully illuminating, this level of strategic dialogue would generate many insights and many unique coachable and teaching moments plus provide a fantastic opportunity to talk about culture, strategy and role modeling.
In short, this is a very good article and well-worth the time and effort to read. I urge you to share it with your leadership team this summer and to discuss the lessons learned as you prepare for the fall and the coming year.