Voice Over - Org Culture Naval Gazing Continues

Let’s assume you identify a future state cultural norm that you would like to strengthen in your organisational culture. It doesn’t violate the cross-cultural challenge, nor does it fly in the face of a general societal norm. You would like, just say for an example out of thin air, for everyone to be closer. I’m going to take this as an example that I have now seen attempted at – believe it or not – three organisations. We’re all going to be friends. We’re going to work closely together to accomplish shared objectives. It’s all going to be flowers and good will. There will be safe-for-work virtual hugging all around. You’ve either hired a high-priced consultancy to tell you this is a great common behavioural norm or some brilliant advocate probably from your HR team surfaced the idea. Your executive floor signs off on this idea and hands it off to a more or less ill-funded and/or ill-equipped comms, change or HR team, or they throw money at it and hire a sweet suite of dedicated professionals to do so. And off they go.

This never works.

Or at least it has never worked particularly well in my experience. Doing a bit of post-implementation analysis yields a few potential reasons this is a flop-tastic way to change culture.

Executive Focus

I’m not going to say that the average senior executive of a major company has the attention span of a house fly but… well there is a lot of evidence out there in the business literature that the average senior executive is about as focused as the dogs in Up! I don’t think, by the way, this is their fault. In fact, I’m increasingly of the opinion it is the way we design their roles and thus fixable. Another topic for another day.

But in the bucket of big assumptions, let’s assume that when the senior leaders of big companies set a ‘culture goal’, they immediately forget they have done so and move on to other topics. Our cultural metrics are generally ill-defined or poorly fitting proxies (see employee net promotor score literature), so it often proves difficult to add them directly to an executive dashboard or score card. In the absence of very strong, very clear, and very regular reminders of the goal, it is not surprising that leadership support for your cultural change objective is weak, fuzzy, and irregular.


-          Do everything in your power to define a cultural change metric that is unambiguous, collected regularly, and holds a prominent place in executive reporting and incentive structures.

-          Don’t bother enlisting in an organisational change program sponsored by anyone except the the top executive managing the target group. Only that top voice has a hope of prioritising immediate expenditure on a long-term ‘fuzzy logic’ programme to create a future workforce against competing, more quantifiable and short-term initiatives.

Time Horizon

Culture doesn’t really eat strategy for breakfast. Culture doesn’t care about breakfast. Culture is playing a really long game and just simply waits out strategy. A strategy is ‘make our people work together more collaboratively, run a programme to make it so’. Culture is ‘we have an historic tendency to work in silos and jealously guard our organisational territorial prerogatives because since the founding of this company 150 years ago, status, budgets, promotions and bonuses were predicated on us treating each other as the First Enemy of all that is right and good in the world.’

Any programme designed to change culture must explicitly account for the stickiness of old ways of thinking and behaving. There is a lovely expression to capture this problem: “Sometimes for a good idea to prevail, the bad idea must die. Literally. Everyone who advocates the idea must retire and die.” Part of your strategy must be to understand the generational turnover of your target group. For example, in a retail shop or fast food restaurant or even a contact centre, your entire population might turn over roughly every 18 months. That requires a different strategy and programme of work than a back-office group of specialists who turn over roughly every 10 years.

There is also the question of resiliency and receptivity to new ideas. Look at the population of the target group and unpick their likely response to a push to change their behaviours. This isn’t all that different than the cross-cultural challenge across national or racial identity, gender, or age. For example, while I hate to stereotype, it is true that we do get a bit more fixed in our ways the older we get. This is the source of considerable consternation to those attempting to build a cultural change program around digital ways of work. Not only does our older population have less familiarity with technology, they actually don’t as a rule like it. The inability to get these senior employees to adopt tools like company social media, chat clients, or video conferencing is forever baffling to digital natives.

Recommendation: Design your cultural change programme specifically around the target group’s generational life cycle and their historical receptivity to new ideas in the same category you are attempting to drive.

Corollary: Set the expectations of your leadership sponsor(s) according to the generational lifespan of the target group.


Again, happy to receive posts, messages, and or email with your experience both good or ill on a change approach for culture. I think I have at least one, perhaps several more in this series and your messages can help drive those.

“The average human attention span was 12 seconds in 2000 and 8 seconds in 2013. A drop of 33%. The scary part is that the attention span of a goldfish was 9 seconds. That’s why it’s getting hard to get people to turn the page. Maybe we writers ought to try writing for goldfish!” ~ Ashwin Sangh