Culture Change by Design


Many are thinking about changing their organization's culture to make it more innovative, more customer focused, even more healthy. All good goals, in my view.

But can you really change the culture? Experts on corporate culture have differing views.

Where does culture come from?  The culture of an organization is the way it is due to the history of the company, stretching back into the past. Culture is a reflection of the founders and past leaders, decisions that were made in the face of early obstacles, and practices that became "the way we do things here." 

The way a culture is now is because of the way things have been done. 

To change the culture therefore requires changing the deep structures that underpin the present behaviors. This is a significant undertaking. There is no quick fix. No fast transformation.


I am reminded of a culture change project from 2011 that made headlines in the media.  Back in 2011, Lowell McAdam, the newly named CEO of Verizon Communications, announced: "We will definitely try to bring that entrepreneurial culture from the wireless side into the wireline side." Why? McAdam had come over to Verizon after a highly successful run as the head of Verizon Wireless. He said that Verizon must adopt a more "entrepreneurial culture" in its shrinking land-line business.

That was truly a Big Scale Culture Change Project: How to bring the entrepreneurial culture from the wireless business into the wireline side of Verizon Communications, to counter its shrinking business prospects.

How did he plan to pull this off? Reading further in the news articles, some of McAdam's ideas for changing the culture included...

Spreading the Credo: Like many other companies, Verizon Wireless has a set of values. They call it their Credo (as does Johnson and Johnson). The word Customer is mentioned over and over. And most interesting is the final section about Bigness:

"Bureaucracy is an enemy. We fight every day to stay small and keep bureaucracy out. We are more agile than companies a fraction of our size, because we act fast and take risks every day. We see crisis and change as opportunities, not threats. We run to a crisis, not away. Change energizes us. We work hard, take action and get things done. Our actions produce measurable results."

Impressive words. But the proof is on the front-line.

Working with the Unions: A phone company like Verizon deploys thousands of front-line workers each and every day. The culture change initiative must touch the hearts of these people or it won't take hold.

Developing New Products and Services: With new competitors nibbling away at the old phone business, Verizon must think differently and innovate. The way to think differently is get different people thinking together.

If McAdam had asked me what else he should consider, I'd have offered the following...

Lead the Change: This is now a top priority for all the leaders of the organization. Who are the leaders? Potentially, anyone. Leaders can come from anywhere in an organization. Expand your thinking about leadership and develop leaders at all levels. Leaders are the catalyst for change.

Share the Vision:  What is the change? What do we desire to become? What is possible? What will it take to get there? What will it be like when we have reached the New Beginning? Can we let go of the Old Way?

Clarify the Challenge: Make it abundantly clear that the stakes are high and that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Jack Welch once said it very well: Change before you have to.

Communicate!   Effective communication is open, two-way, and direct. To build trust during times of significant change, communication must be constant.

Engage the Entire Organization: Make it very clear that everyone has a part to play in moving the culture and transforming the way Verizon does business. Invite everyone to contribute. Make it "safe to say" whatever is on their mind. Listen and learn. Implement as much as possible.

Change the Conversations: Get different people involved. Change the conversation by changing who is around the table. Capitalize on diversity.

Engage the Customer: Invite the customer to the table. Seek their input. Listen, learn, and improve.

Changing the culture of an organization is a massive undertaking. But it is possible.

The members of the organization have to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask themselves "Can we change?" 

To change the culture of an organization, you have got to engage everyone. Everyone must be included. Somehow everyone has to have their say...and be heard.

With commitment, communication, coaching, customer-focus, and confidence, it can start tomorrow.


Terrence Seamon is fascinated by culture and culture change. Follow him on twitter @tseamon. Learn more about him on facebook at Facilitation Solutions.

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