In the online course that I teach for ASTD on Developing an Organizational Learning Culture, one of the questions I hear most often is, “How can I change the culture in my company when there is little support from management and our unions resist any change that might affect the work rules?” This question has no easy answer.  It took decades to create the culture that currently exists in many of these organizations and any significant change is going to take time, effort and perseverance.  

Culture is the deeply held beliefs (true and false), assumptions, values and principles that are expressed through the symbols, artifacts, and behaviors of an organization. Culture is how an organization does its work.  Culture only becomes problematic and in need of change when it is not aligned with the goals of the organization. It is then that an organization needs to make visible this lack of alignment (e.g., a survey) and confront the behaviors that are preventing the company from being successful.

In the book Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations: Aligning Culture and Strategy, the authors argue that although culture change is difficult, it must be done if companies want to improve performance. The authors write:

But can something as complicated as corporate culture actually be managed? The task is daunting – but doing nothing is not an attractive option! Organizational culture guru Edgar Schein said it best: “Either you manage the culture, or it manages you.” Managing culture change is certainly not easy, but there are plenty of real-life examples of global companies who have succeeded.

Some think culture change must be comprehensive across the whole organization and led by the CEO. ASYV Mural Some think the change must be more targeted at organizational leverage points. In an article by Jon Katzenbach, Rutger von Post, and James Thomas, titled, “The Critical Few: Components of a Truly Effective Culture,” the authors write:

We have found, through numerous cultural interventions with a wide range of organizations, from HP and Bell Canada to major enterprises in India, Australia, and the Middle East, that companies that eschew all-encompassing culture change initiatives and instead focus on three specific elements—critical behaviors, existing cultural traits, and critical informal leaders—have the most success. We call these “the critical few.”

…In our experience, a sharp focus on the critical few reduces complexity and begets more positive, informal, and lasting cultural impact on performance—and it does so much faster than top-down messaging and formal programmatic attempts.

I don’t think there is one right answer that fits all organizations. Some, both large and small, because of the commitment of their leaders and the strength of their management teams could succeed in changing their culture with a whole-organization initiative. Other companies, because of strong resistance to change from groups throughout the organization, are better off taking “the critical few” approach. 

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