Article: Culture change is not a screw-on job


Culture change is not a screw-on job

Visty Banaji adds a coda to Peter Drucker’s aphorism: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast … and still has the appetite to devour an upstart, invasive, new culture imposed on it, for elevenses".
Culture change is not a screw-on job

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There is a virus stalking corporate India. It is not as immediately lethal as COVID-19 though, like all viruses, it is parasitical and does nothing for the survival-fitness of the host. All it takes is for a primary nerve centre (usually a newly appointed CEO or CHRO) to have a few suitably configured entry receptors for the roving virus to latch on. Once that happens, other immunological defenses (meant to be overseen by HR) prove to be of no use and, in fact, become carriers for strange new memetic sequences which they attempt to graft onto the existing DNA of the organization.  

The virus is called Culturechanguenza Vulgaris in its most common variant and CEOs, HR Heads and other CXOs eager to show their shine are particularly prone to getting infected. Especially during their first 100 days in a new job, they are likely to let down their minimal skeptical guard1 and look for quick fixes that can amplify their auras. Initiating a culture change programme seems to be an extremely attractive option at such times. For the 'consultagion' too, this defenses-down time is the best occasion to strike. After all culture change projects are among the most lucrative ones consultants can land. The effort: return ratio for culture change work is incredibly low and even Planck’s Chauffeur2 can be assigned to the job. A mature HR function, with a strategically integrated transformation programme underway, should be in a position to counter such an individually motivated incursion. Obviously, this is easier said than done when the receptor cell for the virus is placed atop the head of a new CEO or CHRO. Rutger Bregman captures the undesirable consequences of criticizing the boss-man through the ages: "Just try standing up to a strongman who has all opposition skinned, burned alive, or drawn and quartered. Your criticism won’t seem so urgent."

Of course, the demand for cultural change isn’t as irrational as I have made it sound. Study after study has shown that certain cultural standouts make significant contributions to organizational performance in specific industries and environments.4 The problems start when an idée fixe in the CEO’s head or the consultant’s toolkit is considered the cure-all for all organizations, regardless of the historical heritage from which they are coming or the strategic direction in which they are headed. Problems caused by generic culture change directions are hugely compounded when results are demanded and promised in short time-spans which, on the scale of time taken by true cultural change, are mere eyeblinks. Another potential cause for the failure of ill-considered culture change is the manner in which full range consulting firms staff such mushy projects. Since outcomes are hard to measure, it is tempting to assign to them the callowest consultants who have never experienced the thrill of working in an organization with a vibrant culture (case studies can capture it as well as an infantry manual holds the secrets of battlefield brotherhood). The irreverent glee with which these infants dismantle a treasured culture and substitute reminted, MAA (Motherhood And Applepie) phrases in its place, raises a wall of resentment which puts paid to any slight chances of cultural transformation actually materializing. 

The spirit of the enterprise

I am far from being the first one to suggest vectoral maxima and temporal minima for cultural change. Montesquieu, writing in the 18th century, had similar concerns in mind while cautioning over-ambitious lawmakers. "… [A]s a society develops, the moral causes acquire an increasing purchase on a society’s esprit général [the moral, social and political culture of a given society]. The esprit général of a society, whether it is simple or sophisticated, is the legislator’s raw material, so to speak. He legislates against it at his peril, and at the peril of the whole of that society. At best, laws enacted against the esprit général will simply fail to work; at worst, if vigorously enforced, they could destroy the society which the laws are meant to preserve… Sometimes a legislator might be tempted to legislate against the grain of the whole of a society’s life, and Montesquieu believes that in cases like that "… [t]he legislation will fail, and the system of government which produced the legislation might well fall with it... The very complexity of the esprit général gives the wise legislator plenty of room for manoeuvre within it, and there is plenty of opportunity for reform within it."5

Montesquieu’s own words sound strangely modern when he advises policies be tailored to culture (rather than the other way around as is expected to happen, for example, when a new CEO brings in policies from his previous firm and expects the receiving culture to adopt them): "… [T]he government most in conformity with nature is the one whose particular arrangement best relates to the disposition of the people for whom it is established… Laws should be so appropriate to the people for whom they are made that it is very unlikely that the laws of one nation can suit another..."

How does the culture plant grow?

Can we couch the same principles using current corporate terminology and back them up with recent research? Indeed, we can. 

Let’s first define culture in the context of today’s business context. Definitions abound but here’s a perfectly acceptable one: "Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviours in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive. Culture can also evolve flexibly and autonomously in response to changing opportunities and demands. Whereas strategy is typically determined by the C-suite, culture can fluidly blend the intentions of top leaders with the knowledge and experiences of frontline employees."7

To my reckoning, organizational culture has three vital components which go a long way to explaining why changing it takes so much time and invites such opposition. To start with, culture is founded on shared history. It is not important how true that history is, as long as it is believed with passion. The corporate history that grounds its culture is replete with heroes, villains and deeds of sacrifice and infamy. There are breathtaking tales of life-threatening dangers and how they were overcome. The narratives hold morals which can either bolster or belie the values the company officially blazons. From this historical memory flows the second ingredient of a strong culture: the people, actions and things that are respected and revered (to the point of sacralization) and those that are reviled. The history and reliquary join together with the tacit instructions (usually imparted by way of example) that old-timers impart to an incoming generation for creating the third part of the cultural tripod. This consists of the initiatives taken and reactions given by people when there is no specific instruction from a senior or set procedure governing conduct. With sufficient repetition these actions become more than habits – they become the ineffable codes of appropriate behaviour pervading the organization.

It should now be obvious why changing the culture is a lot more complicated and time-taking than just changing a few senior people and operating protocols. Taking the points from the previous paragraph in reverse order, the actions that determine culture are not in written manuals or supervisory instructions. Even if someone were to undertake the near-impossible task of codifying these, the effort would be fruitless. To the extent the new directives belittle or contradict the characters and codes solidified into legend over years, the best outcome can be that the new instructions will be ignored. Pushed too far and too fast, however, and the change effort can elicit a reaction as belligerent (even if kept unrevealed) as that from a true believer forced to apostatize. Not that a few toadies won’t start sprouting the new Decalogue. But this will just solidify the resentment of the rest. Creating a new history (which, hopefully, yields a new set of legends and commandments) takes time and time is precisely what those infected with Culturechanguenza Vulgaris don’t have.

True transformation

Even a great conservative like Edmund Burke maintained that "[a] state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.”8 This is equally true of business enterprises. How then can one improve the odds in effecting it?

If change is essential in the way things are done, there are a variety of devices that are at our disposal. Cultural transformation is not the first tool we should pick up. It should be close to the last attempted intervention, after examining and, in some circumstances, trying what can be achieved through changing people, processes and even structures. Montesquieu’s wisdom is worth repeating after all these years: "With regard to mores, much is to be gained by keeping the old customs… [R]ecalling men to the old maxims usually returns them to virtue."6

After careful consideration and conversation, should cultural change be identified as the appropriate intervention, there are two directional blunders that need to be avoided. Regardless of the supposedly irrefutable empirical evidence the 'consultagion' presents, do not get carried away by the specific snake-oil s/he is peddling or the fad of the day, both of which can frequently be the same. Seemingly more grounded is a culture change target, specifically derived from your strategy and tailored to your needs. However, if it is diametrically opposed to everything the company has stood for so far, you need to think long and hard before aiming for it. And at the end of that thinking process, you probably need to find a bridge less far.

It is worth understanding this ambition-dampener in some detail. To do so we need to use a typology of the corporate culture. There are a number of such models which are used for both diagnostics, inter-unit comparison and change targeting. Denison’s model9 as well as the one proposed by Cameron and Quinn10 have great intuitive appeal and have been used by many organizations. So has the one described by Groysberg (and others)7 and I will use it for our illustration. According to Groysberg, there are eight types of company culture. These are:

1. Caring focuses on relationships and mutual trust

2. Purpose is exemplified by idealism and altruism

3. Learning is characterized by exploration, expansiveness, and creativity

4. Enjoyment is expressed through fun and excitement

5. Results is characterized by achievement and winning

6. Authority is defined by strength, decisiveness, and boldness

7. Safety is defined by planning, caution, and preparedness

8. Order is focused on respect, structure, and shared norms

These are fitted into an integrated culture framework according to the degree to which they reflect independence or interdependence (people interactions) and flexibility or stability (response to change). "Each style has advantages and disadvantages, and no style is inherently better than another."7 For our present purpose, the key is that the more distant a targeted culture is from the existing one on the grid, the greater the effort needing to be expended, resistance to be overcome and time demanded. 

Excessive force, urgency and ridiculing 'the old way' can certainly BREAK the existing culture. Equally certainly, heavy-handed haste and humiliation of heritage-holders cannot MAKE a successful culture to replace the earlier one. 

Let us look at an example of an immense cultural transformation that worked. I got it directly from a friend who is among the most successful stars on India’s HR horizon. Though he, in a true partnership with his boss, was responsible for the recast, he still shies away from taking credit for it and, hence, remains unnamed here. Though the actual plan may vary from case to case, I would be surprised if more than one of the five principles I have gleaned from this case were missing in any successful cultural transformation:

  1. Be aware of the pride attached to traditions of the organization and the culture that has brought it success in the past. Respect it sincerely and leverage it (see 3 below) to support the transformation. Never trash the existing culture and deal severely with over-eager transforming crusaders who do so
  2. As far as possible, avoid announcing a grand plan of change. Whenever a glimpse of the path has to be provided, stress its continuity with the past and explain why a redirection is essential. Preferably put the burden of the explanation on external causes – rather than point a finger at failure within.
  3. Effect the change element by element, incrementally. Moor explanations to the core values cherished by the organization. Sometimes simple activities (an awards event, a new training format or even a redesigned application form) can profoundly alter the cultural tone without openly declaring such an intent. Constantly experiment and do not hesitate to withdraw. A tactical retreat is perfectly feasible when each element is only one out of many indirect steps to reach the main objective.
  4. Have patience. In the mega-conglomerate we are discussing, without much fanfare and trumpeting, the organization’s culture was substantially different (bar a few core principles) in a decade. Please note the time span. The next ten years took the transformation still further and, more importantly, consolidated and embedded the new culture i.e. gave the new culture its own history, heroes and legends.
  5. Don’t position yourself (even if you are the CEO and certainly not if you are the CHRO) as the saviour coming to the rescue of a rotten operation from fools and villains. If you are truly successful, fame will find you. 

A vaccine is not a cure

It is important to emphasize that the foregoing was not a blueprint for actually managing a cultural transformation programme. That would have required at least an entire book to itself. We have simply touched on a few essentials to be observed before embarking on such a programme and during it. 

This column should inoculate you against an attack of Culturechanguenza Vulgaris for at least the next twelve months. No vaccine is 100% effective but this one should protect you (and your incoming CEO) against most strains of the virus. "But", I hear you say, "my CEO has already launched the exercise and paid a crazy advance to some fast-talking 'consultagions'. Should I show him this article?" That, dear friend, would be a career-shortening move. Administering a vaccine after the onset of the disease can have dire consequences. At this stage the best you do is go along for the ride and hope only superficial damage is done before a premature 'Mission Accomplished' is announced. 


  1. Visty Banaji, Pyrrho, please pay another visit - A DIY kit for sniffing out BS in HR, People Matters, 23 March 2017.
  2. From Charlie Munger’s 2007 USC Law School Commencement Address where he said:
    "I frequently tell the story of Max Planck, when he won the Nobel prize and went around Germany giving lectures on quantum mechanics. And the chauffeur gradually memorized the lecture and he said, 'Would you mind, Professor Planck, just because it's so boring staying in our routines, would you mind if I gave the lecture this time and you just sat in front with my chauffeur's hat?' And Planck said, 'Sure.' And the chauffeur got up and he gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics, after which a physics professor stood up in the rear and asked a perfectly ghastly question. And the chauffeur said, 'Well, I'm surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I'm going to ask my chauffeur to reply.' "
  3. Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.
  4. Daniel R Denison and Aneil K Mishra, Toward a Theory of Organizational Culture and Effectiveness, Organization Science 6(2), April 1995.
  5. J S McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought, Routledge 1996.
  6. Charles de Montesquieu, Editors: Anne M Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller and Harold Samuel Stone, The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought), Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  7. Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price and J Yo-Jud Cheng, The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, Harvard Business Review, Juan-Feb 2018. 
  8. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Penguin,1968.
  9. Daniel R Denison, S Haaland, and P Goelzer, Corporate Culture and Organizational Effectiveness: Is Asia Different From the Rest of the World? , Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 98-109, 2004.
  10. Kim S Cameron and Robert E Quinn, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework, Jossey-Bass, 2011.



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