Peter Drucker said, “Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.”
For anyone that has tried or is trying to change the culture inside their company, this certainly has a ring of familiarity to it. Company cultures are difficult to change â€“ but certainly not impossible. To change anything, you have to work with what youâ€™ve got. The problem is that the existing culture is custom made to defend and protect itself, even if itâ€™s not best for the objectives of the individual or the stakeholders. It would be easy here to pick on this company or that company, but itâ€™s not necessary to name names â€“ theyâ€™re everywhere.
So instead letâ€™s ask the question about why it is so difficult and what can we do to effect change?
For simplicity, letâ€™s imagine that weâ€™re talking about a culture of continuous improvement â€“ a place where things react to an ever changing environment by getting better and better. Weâ€™ll call this a CI culture. If achieving this were as simple as describing the future state, even in minute detail, weâ€™d all just read a few of the great books on the subject, create our future state design (and make sure everyone in the company read the books and reviewed the designs as well) and then just come in next Monday and be that wayâ€¦right?
The reason itâ€™s so difficult is that we are talking about fundamentally changing the way everything gets done: day-to-day tasks and the interaction between all of the various entities, simultaneously. To get the tasks and interactions to change, we must fundamentally change the way people think about their work. The existing culture, ready-made to defend itself, will punish those who try.
To make a start at changing culture, we must first and foremost make it okay to challenge the system. Even more, we must make challenging the system a requirement – but do this in ways that are structured and within some formal boundaries. We arenâ€™t talking about anarchy here, because anarchy never wins popular support. However small changes – incremental changes â€“ that are structured, measured and well communicated do stack up over time and do counter the natural protective tendencies of the existing culture.
But as the culture starts to move toward a place where challenging the status quo and improving things is part of the standard operating procedure, it will be barely perceptible to all but the most observant participant. Why? Because even then people will say â€śThis is just how we are.”