Agile Organization

The Myth of Cultural Change

Culture is the air that the business breathes, but changing the culture is not as simple as installing a new air conditioner. In fact, “changing” company culture may not even be possible, in the popular sense at least. In a post at Extreme Uncertainty, Sydney-based IT worker Leon Tranter explains why he thinks all culture change initiatives are bound to have little final effect on businesses.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

It is not difficult to find examples of culture changes failing. Virtually every business who has ever tried to mimic the culture of a successful competitor like Google or Walmart has come up short. Tranter says the reason why is that “Culture is not a cause of success, but an effect.” In other words, culture is just the product of however your business is currently structured and behaving. Trying to change culture to improve business is an example of the tail wagging the dog, except in this case, the tail has arthritis.

Tranter considers the specific case of Google and how people admire its “engineering culture.” He questions if the culture itself is the secret sauce, or if the following factors might really be the differentiators:

  • only hires the very, very, VERY best engineers and trains and rewards them well (i.e. their HR system)?
  • structures the organisation around small engineering focused teams (i.e. their structure)?
  • empowers engineers to make the right engineering decisions, even if they are at the expense of product or profits (i.e. power)?

Tranter says that power, structure, and HR are all valid lenses through which businesses may be viewed in addition to the lens of culture. The difference is that these other lenses can be directly adjusted, unlike culture, and in fact only through changes to these areas does genuine cultural change result. In this light, Tranter believes the best thing you can do is treat culture as a lagging indicator of how the business is doing. Because after all, just because culture cannot be easily changed does not make it critically important. Keep monitoring it, even if the results from day to day feel a bit frustrating.

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