The Culture Beast - Ignore it at your peril.

One of the biggest barriers to achieving sustainable business change is culture, or as I refer to it, the culture beast. Senior managers within organisations can do a great job at researching opportunities, identifying a case for change and preparing a flawless business case, but if this change involves changes to individual roles, behaviour change, relationship changes (i.e. the people aspects of change), as most major changes do, then ignore the culture beast at your peril.  The change may also challenge the core values of the organisation's brand. The problem with the beast is that it is not immediately visible, and therefore difficult to grab hold of. Yes there are signals above the surface that indicate what the cultural challenge may be, for example staff attitude surveys, but the problem still lies beneath the surface within the organisation,  and within the beliefs, attitudes and core values of the organisation's people.  The culture beast is highly resilient as it has formed in the majority of cases over many years.

So what happens when a major change occurs that requires some cultural shift, even if relatively minor? Well the culture beast is intelligent,  it will appear as if it has gone to sleep whilst everyone at the Project Executive Committee pat each other on the back prior to announcing yet another major change.  As the change is socialised amongst its targets, the culture beast will remain in the background, not choosing to surface whilst everyone is in “happy talk” mode about the new change.     

Recently, I learned of an interesting example of the culture beast de-railing what seemed like a very successful business change in an organisation. This was a major business change that involved acquisition, outsourcing and a major change to its operating model. All seemed to be working well, the change was completed within schedule and business executives, still in happy talk were patting each other on the backs.  Part of the change involved the outsourcing of laboratory testing from a remote site in Scotland to Scandinavia, a far larger and more technologically advanced organisation. The change involved changing the roles of the current experts, from carrying out the experiments and trials, to that of governing the entire process.

All seemed to be going well, the two teams had engaged and worked out what needed to be done, no major entries in the ‘issues and risk’ registers therefore. There didn’t appear to be any major surface resistance, and it provided an opportunity for a couple of people to leave on favourable terms.  The new site in Scandinavia was visited, and all looked in great shape.

Around nine months after the change was complete and declared a resounding success, the HR Business Partner decided that it was time to pay a visit to the remote site in Scotland to see how they were getting along with their new governance role. She arrived and was taken aback when she saw the laboratory working at full steam, literally.  When she challenged the head of the function about the changes in roles & responsibilities, she was met with stern defence. A governance process had been set up as planned, but the problem was, the current team, with years of knowledge just didn’t trust their new partner.  There had been a few errors in the early days of the change, so replacing people’s eyes and brains with technology was a big risk in the eyes of the dedicated team, and they all had the interests of the organisation at heart.  Their resistance to change manifested itself in them setting up a duplicate testing process, just to make sure. The problem was that this was duplicating costs, and eroding the benefits associated with the change, and relationships with the outsourced organisation was strained as there was a clear lack of trust.  So, had this change been accomplished, or had the culture beast pounced at a time when the organisation were off guard! Was the real reason for the duplication that they enjoyed the hands on nature of the job they had been doing for years, and an unwillingness to let go?

So, how can we take, or work with this culture beast, because we all know that changes that challenge existing culture will be necessary for progression and growth.  Here are 5 important tips for working with the beast:-

1.     Great sponsorship - this will help resistance come to the surface rather than seeping underground where it is usually more disruptive

2.     Ensure fair consequence management is in place

3.     Don’t celebrate success too early

4.     Management control – look for real evidence and not just words or assurances from people

Of course, many organisations have managed to work with the beast and affect sustainable change, but more continue to fail. And once the beast has changed ... really changed, then it will take another change effort for it to move back or change further! 


2011, People, CultureKatie MayerComment