1. Lead with the culture. Lou Gerstner, who as chief executive of IBM led one of the most successful business transformations in history, said the most important lesson he learned from the experience was that “culture is everything.” Businesspeople today understand this. In the Katzenbach Center survey, 84 percent said that the organization’s culture was critical to the success of change management, and 64 percent saw it as more critical than strategy or operating model. Yet change leaders often fail to address culture—in terms of either overcoming cultural resistance or making the most of cultural support. Among respondents whose companies were unable to sustain change over time, a startling 76 percent reported that executives failed to take account of the existing culture when designing the transformation effort.
Skilled change managers make the most of their company’s existing culture.
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Why would this be true, given the widespread recognition of culture’s importance? Perhaps it’s because change management designers view their company’s culture as the legacy of a past from which they want to move on. Or they get so focused on structural details—reporting lines, decision rights, and formal processes—that they forget that human beings with strong emotional connections to the culture will be enacting these changes. Or they assume that culture, because it is “soft” and informal, will be malleable enough to adapt without requiring explicit attention.
Yet skilled change managers, conscious of organizational change management best practices, always make the most of their company’s existing culture. Instead of trying to change the culture itself, they draw emotional energy from it. They tap into the way people already think, behave, work, and feel to provide a boost to the change initiative. To use this emotional energy, leaders must look for the elements of the culture that are aligned to the change, bring them to the foreground, and attract the attention of the people who will be affected by the change.
In two healthcare companies undergoing a merger, culture led the post-deal integration. Using a culture-related diagnostic questionnaire, the change management team asked people to describe each company’s operating style—and mapped the responses from the two legacy companies to get a sense of their combined strengths and challenges. It quickly became clear that where one company had a culture attuned to bottom-line results, the other tended to focus on process. Optimally, the new company would need to skillfully use processes to deliver clear results. By first taking the time to recognize and acknowledge each company’s underlying culture, leaders of the merged firm harnessed deeply ingrained strengths to energize the change and avoided the incoherence that could have resulted from a less intentional and sensitive redesign.