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Organizational Change: Start where people are, in current culture

Organizational Change: Start where people are, in current culture

  • 26 September 2016
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Now that we are more aware of the conditions for successful change and the reasons why organizational change often fails and fails some more, where do you start the change process? The obvious answer is: start where people are. Any journey departs from your current location. First, you have to thoroughly understand the current situation. What do people think, believe, assume, expect, hope, and fear? What are they used to? What’s the way they do things around here?

Point of departure

The current culture is the point of departure to start any change. That’s because the viscosity of culture likes to keep everything the same: organizational culture is a great record of what worked well in the past. Culture loves to keep the present the same and it preserves itself by the group tendency that people copy each other to belong.

So, if you want to move toward a different future, you’d better understand what your present position is, what you’d like to take with you, and what may be holding you back. Otherwise, culture keeps doing it the way we’ve always done things around here. You can’t simply “expect a 100-year-old bank to behave like Snapchat (nor should you want it to!)… nor would you expect Victoria’s Secret to adopt the risk orientation of a life insurance company,” states leadership blogger Victor Lipman on Forbes. Everyone wants to be the next Google, but does it fit your organization’s cultural DNA?

Discard the culture, and the change plan will go astray. The needed change may be counterintuitive, uncomfortable, undesired or incomprehensible for people in the current culture. If you want to cross the river of change, culture could be the millstone that drowns your ship midstream. That’s why you can’t simply “jump to change.” You can’t order bank clerks to become innovative, experiment, and take risks just like that. You have to meet them where they are and explain why, and how, and solve objections and disadvantages, and pack their bags with them, and then provide stepping stones to cross that wild river - or teach them how to swim - or provide waterproof vessels.


It’s as simple as Stephen Covey said: seek first to understand than to be understood. Let’s meet people where they are, with their current beliefs and behaviors. Then we can figure out a way to take them with us to the other side and embark on that journey of change. This sounds rather obvious but just like all wise advice, it may be easier said than done. Many organizations prefer to go fast, because the competition is, too. When the rationale and the numbers look sound on paper, they launch the change, pushing their people into the muddy waters of change. Let’s jump!

Staying relevant

If the change is innovation and staying up to date with technology and the global market, culture matters. John Kotter describes the failure of Kodak to keep up with technology that eventually led to their bankruptcy, while competitor Fuji succeeded. Here’s the opposite case of managers failing to cross a stream, while their people longed to build new vessels to reach the land on the other side. Kodak’s culture had become complacent, especially the leaders. Kotter observed: “Of course all the people buried in the hierarchy who saw the oncoming problems and had ideas for solutions made no progress. Their bosses and peers ignored them.” In this case, the management culture was the roadblock. Their complacency, based on prior successes, enhanced a “hierarchy culture” where new insights and ideas couldn’t get through the layers. Even though Kodak’s culture used to be open, curious, and innovative - it was muted by managers who thought they knew better. They managed the business as usual and missed the boat.

Adopting a work method

If the change is implementing a new software building approach, culture matters. IT-consultant Christiaan Verwijs explains how implementing Scrum (the agile IT-development method) is not so much a matter of changing your method but changing your culture. You can go through the motions and push people to use Scrum, but it won’t last when you don’t truly embrace Scrum’s underlying values and beliefs, such as valuing mistakes as an opportunity to learn, and valuing the team’s collective intelligence above that of individuals. If the culture stays risk-averse, no one will volunteer to share helpful mistakes.

Merge to increase profit

If the change is a merger that looks great on paper, given your competitive market, culture matters. Think of the troublesome mergers between Daimler-Chrysler, Novell and WordPerfect, HP and Compaq, and others. Darcy Jacobsen writes about AOL and TimeWarner: “Culture clash was widely blamed for the failure of the joint venture. Said Richard Parsons, president of Time Warner: “I remember saying at a vital board meeting where we approved this, that life was going to be different going forward because they’re very different cultures, but I have to tell you, I underestimated how different… It was beyond certainly my abilities to figure out how to blend the old media and the new media culture.” Start where people are

The business case for Change

If the change is the need to become agiler and upgrade from paper to the digital world, culture matters. In the case of the University Library I worked with, we had to find a way to help staff stop hiding behind busy meetings and procedures and help them become more straightforward and courageous in giving and receiving timely feedback and becoming flexible collaborators to achieve results faster. I’ll share this case in a later post!

If the change is the necessity to be more efficient in a market under pressure, culture matters. The division of the technical maintenance company that was my client was stifled and almost suffocated by micro management from their next-level bosses. The demand to collect and present detailed numbers in a very high frequency precluded their efficiency. How to break free when your culture obeys the boss? I’ll share this case in a later post as well.

The map to start the journey of Change

This is why I started using the OCAI - the validated Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument, developed by Kim Cameron & Robert Quinn. I wanted a map of the territory before starting any journey of change. I wanted to help my clients become aware of their current position, define their desired destination, and take off in the right direction well prepared. I wanted the positive change to last - and people and organizations to reach their destination.

That’s the business case for working with organizational culture to help positive change succeed. If you don’t work with culture, it will work you over. In my next post, I’ll explain the simple power of the OCAI to prepare your change journey.

I’d love to hear your cases and thoughts:

  • Where in your life and work have you met people where they are?
  • Where in your current life and work are you pushing people to change just like that?
  • How could you meet them where they are now?

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2016. All rights reserved.

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