Four questions on culture change

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LONDON, Monday 16 October 2017 — Welcome to Week 3 of October 2017, an entire month dedicated to Organisational Change Management (OCM). This week we’re talking about the ever-topical subject of organisational culture.

Despite originating as an anthropological concept[1] in the 19th century, ‘culture’ has become somewhat of a management buzzword over the past 40 years. Although indirectly referenced by prominent management theorists since the early 20th century[2], it was not explicitly identified as a contributing factor to organisational success until the early 1980s. Since then, organisational culture has increasingly taken up the time and attention of leaders everywhere and solidly secured itself as a prominent topic of many academic research papers, news stories and conversations alike.

But why does everyone have so much to say about it? And what does culture have to do with organisational change management? These are the key questions that we want to address here.

Organisational or corporate culture as it is sometimes known, is important and a highly influential asset. That’s the common message across the innumerable amount of articles found in business publications and on social media. But despite the wide discussion, trying to define what it actually is, is difficult. And if you look for one, you’ll struggle to find a unanimous, universally agreed definition. Evidently, culture means different things to different people, and this, as you can see from a quick internet search, provokes zealous debate. For the purpose of this blog post, it is worth firstly outlining our view at Able and How. Most commonly, we talk about culture as Bower[3] described it. It is simply ‘the way we do things around here’.

Organisational culture cannot be easily replicated

Just like a country has its own identifiable rituals, customs, values and norms, so does an organisation. In fact, research[4] suggests that organisational culture is stronger than national culture, meaning that it is easier to move with one business halfway around the world than to cross the street and join a competitor. This is because every culture is unique. Many organisations may have similar cultural components but each is essentially one-of-a-kind. This kind of differentiator can be fundamental to the competitive advantage of a company: Culture is a driver of success – potentially acting either as an enabler or an inhibitor.

Recent news stories about culture only seem to reinforce this.

Culture and change are inextricably linked

When a high profile company worth billions of dollars, such as Uber, makes front page news because of the ‘toxic’ nature of their culture, it stimulates a lot of conversation around the importance of an organisation’s culture and how influential it is in shaping the behaviour of employees. As organisational change specialists, that conversation is just another day at the office for us.

As we are seeing, public debate regarding employee behaviour usually indicates the need for a change in company culture. In the case of Uber, seemingly that’s what’s in motion following nearly 50 recommendations for change from former US Attorney Eric Holder. Whether or not these will be taken on board and enable successful change can only be determined in time. But based on the people we know who are now involved in the Uber team, I wouldn’t bet against them.

Although creating an aspiration for culture change might seem fairly simple, turning that ambition into action can be a lot more challenging.  As Aristotle[5] said ‘we are what we repeatedly do’. He seemed to recognise that, at its core, culture is essentially about behaviours. Therefore, if you really want to change a culture, we believe you need to change people’s behaviours. And, unfortunately, that’s quite hard. This is where we see cultural change efforts needing organisational change management.

An Able and How case study

One example of the value that OCM provides in a cultural change can be seen in Able and How’s recent support of an organisation’s integration with a major competitor to become a new, separately listed business. In an integration like this, managing culture is extremely important as it influences how quickly and effectively the two companies can come together.

In this case, the cultures of the two companies looked very similar on the surface. But following a significant amount of research and work of internal teams, some crucial differences became clear. Fortunately, both parties acknowledged the impact that ignoring these differences could have on the success of the integration and the future organisation.

With Able and How’s support, the two organisations collectively defined the aspirational culture for the new company, establishing what they wanted it to be. Together, they identified the cultural components from each organisation that they wanted to bring forward, those which should be left behind and others which they wanted to create collaboratively in the future. With this aspiration in mind, it was obvious that both sides would need to make some changes so that everyone could begin to pull in the same, new direction. In doing so, they were then in a position to kick-start the development of a unique, shared culture for the new organisation.

Just tell me what to do

However, just acknowledging the importance of culture and the need to make a change, does not enable people to alter their behaviour, because usually they don’t know what to do. This was exemplified recently in a similar client engagement by one senior executives’ request to ‘Just tell me what to do’.

Our advice? In short, make culture change actionable and tell people what to do. It sounds simple, but it’s not.  Operationalising change is hard and takes skills and experience.  It involves looking at systems, processes and behaviours that are real, measurable, and observable, and that can be changed to significant effect. Fortunately, we have experience doing this successfully with large, complex businesses. If you’d like to hear more about how, keep an eye out for our interview later in the week.


Is your organisation ready for culture change?

If you want to know the answer then we suggest that you take a few minutes to think about these four questions:

  • What are our cultures?
  • What is our cultural aspiration?
  • What needs to change to support the aspiration?
  • How will we sustain and develop our culture?

Can you answer them? If you can, then you’re off to a flying start.  If not, we may need to talk.



[1] Rhodes, P. S & Fincham, R (2005). Principles of Organizational Behaviour. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Rhodes, P. S & Fincham, R (2005). Principles of Organizational Behaviour. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Bower, M (1966). The Will to Manage: Corporate Success Through Programmed Management. New York: Mcgraw-Hill

[4] Kakabadse, A and Kakabadse, N. (1999). Essence of Leadership. London: Cengage Learning EMEA

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