Corporate Culture : actual concern but too easy excuse

excuseCorporate culture is something to watch carefully in any change program. Corporate culture as well as local culture. Anyone who once had to drive change at any level will confirm that. No need to elaborate more : it’s a no-brainer.

That said, we should not overlook another important but seldom mentioned reality. Although being a real matter, culture is on its way to become the easier ready-made excuse for not doing things, refusing change or explain failure. No matter it’s caused by lack of realism or a deliberate will to not look at the truth.

Corporate culture only explains 10% of variance

On the one hand we have facts no one discusses. As shown in this study from Deloitte, the impact of culture on business is a given. But maybe we should distinguish between impact on business and impact on change. As a matter of fact, in a interview given to Hypertextual, Michael Ballé, LEAN thought leader in France and Europe, said that “culture does not explain more than 10% of the variance. The phenomenon exists but has a small real impact”.

What does this mean ? That beyond, culture, what drives behaviors and the decisions one can make in a given situation depends on a couple of factors we could call the system. In the context of the enterprise where the job implies the acceptance of rules, the obedience (conscious or not) to what the system prescribes takes hold over culture. That’s why an internaut can behave in a way that’s radically different from the way he behaves when he steps into the workplace.

Culture is often mentioned to explain why some businesses manage to change things more easily than others. Among the french businesses that led the way in Social Business and use of social technologies, Danone is certainly a leader. But, beyond a really unique culture, there’s a very decentralized structure. In “What matters now” Gary Hamel shared a lot of cases of businesses with unconventional work and management practices. But from W.L. Gore to  Morning Star, it would be too easy to say “ah…that’s a matter of culture” and conclude that trying to change one’s own business is doomed to fail. If these companies have a specific and unique culture – as any company – they also managed to build a system that made things possible, to cause and legitimize some behaviors.

Either good or bad, the system eats culture for lunch

Of course the system can be impacted by leaders’ culture. But that’s not always the case. The example of Cisco’s John Chambers saying that the change he was willing to drive was opposite to his own culture but necessary for the success of the company is eloquent. It’s always possible to change the system while changing culture is more complicated. In a perfect world both are needed at the same time but the right culture with the wrong system is not better that a wrong culture with the right system. Moreover, considering the number of people that individually say that they would like to chang but they can’t, it’s easy to understand that the system is the bigger constraint.

As Deming said

A bad process will beat a good person every time

Didn’t he says that 94% of problems are caused by individuals and only 6% by people ?

Changing culture is useless if you’re not ready to change the system

Finally, the real question is to know if the system impacts culture or if it’s the result the culture. Certainly both at the same time. But they’re not about the same things. Changing corporate culture is changing people, make them adopt new individual and collective values,. Changing the system is making some behaviors logical, accepted, coherent in the workplace.

So to state it clearly : driving change by culture is useless (what means making employees carry alone the full weight of change on their shoulders) if you’re not ready to change the system.

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  • http://fourgroups.com/ Bruce Lewin

    Hi Bertrand, a great question to conclude on. The hard part is aligning the ‘harder’ stuff like systems, strategies, processes and measurables to the ‘softer’ things like culture, relationships, behaviours and so forth. I often think that the two occupy completely different mindsets, the mechanical and the human…

  • jonhusband

    So to state it clearly : driving change by culture is useless (what means making employees carry alone the full weight of change on their shoulders) if you’re not ready to change the system.

    I’m seconding Bruce’s comment here.

    Thank you, Bertrand, for stating it so clearly. Needs to be said .. and no doubt not for the last time ;-)