Changing corporate culture is like losing weight


Why is it so hard to achieve lasting, significant change in your corporate culture?  Because your organization is like a living organism, an organism that wants to maintain homeostasis against a changing environment.

My good friend Claire Breeze, co-founder of Relume and co-author of “The Challenger Spirit”, recently invited me to participate in a  creative day focused on finding out what gets in the way of adopting an approach to learning that is social, connected, informal and immediate – what I’ll call a ‘learning culture’ as shorthand.  In preparation, my starting point became:  What gets in the way of ANY type of cultural change?

There are any number of ‘cultures’ that an organization might adopt:scale

The first step is to draw a picture of what the new, desired culture would look like. What will success look/feel like?  You need to draw this picture in terms of ‘behaviors’, not results.  What half-dozen or so key organizational and/or individual behaviors will be different in your target culture from “how things get done around here” today?

What I mean by focusing on behaviors would follow from the example of coaching a baseball team.  You want to win more games, make the playoffs, win the championship.  Those are goals and, after the fact, results.  But that’s not what you work on in practice, you don’t specifically practice “winning”.  The key behaviors of a winning team might be high batting average, low ERA, and a good fielding percentage.  So as a team in practice you work on turning the double play, the pitcher covering first base on an infield hit, executing a hit-and-run or a double steal, and individually you work on hitting mechanics or mastering a new pitch.  And then there’s the scouting, learning where to best pitch an opposing batter and where to play him in the outfield.

Bringing this back home, for a customer-focused culture, your key behaviors might be: 1) everyone who comes in contact with a customer has available to them a consistent, up-to-date set of customer data, 2) flexibility in the processes that directly affect a customer and the decentralized authority to implement such customer-friendly variations, and 3) having the right assortment, size, model, color, at the right time and the right place.

Next comes the levers at your disposal to effect such change.  A list of the most common management tools would likely include:

  • Organizational structure and design
  • Rewards, incentives, recognition and performance management / metrics
  • Tools, resources, systems, data and processes
  • Hiring / selection / training / orientation
  • Leadership / stories / heroes / values / communication

If you’ve made it this far, that was the easy part.  Countless organizations have implemented such change management plans only to see little in long lasting change and results.  Why?  Because you haven’t addressed the feedback loop, the thermostat, that exists in every organization to maintain normalcy and stasis against a changing environment.  You’re trying to enact change against organizational processes that have evolved to specifically minimize change.

When you think about it, it’s a normal and expected response.  Things get done around here because disruptions are minimized.  I touched on this in a previous post, “Metrics for the Subconscious Organization”, where I pointed out that your organization pretty much runs itself on auto-pilot; most of the time it would hardly notice if you took a couple of months off.

It’s much like attempting to lose weight.  You try to make the behavioral changes - counting calories, eliminating fat or carbs, smaller portions, going vegan or gluten-free - but your body thinks your brain is trying to starve it, and so it reacts accordingly.  It’s what makes progress and permanent weight loss so difficult.  You have to reset the thermostat in order to achieve long-term results.

Your organization is the same way.  Yes, there might be some deliberate, sociopathic “blockers” out there, but by and large your employees are just trying to keep the wheels turning the best way they know how.  In some circumstances, using the starvation metaphor, they may even sense a threat to themselves, their positions, advancement, power or career, and they are simply doing what comes naturally and has likely worked well in the past – protecting themselves by resisting change.  It should come as no surprise that they would try to 'expel the invading foreign body' (cultural change) just as a human body would react to a bacterial infection - if stasis and health is to be maintained, this change in/from the environment must be dealt with.

Prescriptions for resetting the thermostat are hard to come by; if it were otherwise, change management, and weight loss, would be easy.  But, like biological organisms, your organization is also quite capable of evolution and adaptation in the face of a changing environment. I might suggest these approaches (likely reinforced in combination):

  • Change the environment.  Align your levers – organization, tools, incentives, training, stories -  so as to encourage evolution in the desired direction.
  • Disrupt the old environment.  Make it so that there is nothing to go back to.  This regularly happens with acquisitions, and can likely be done internally as well.  Create the pain often necessary for change – the “burning platform”.
  • Change the context.  Reinterpret the organization’s history, mission and story. The old behaviors only make sense in a particular context.  This means creating/providing a new context, and phasing out the old context such that the old behaviors are no longer effective or rewarded.  Again - apply your levers.
  • Address the safety issue:  Keep Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in mind and don’t just focus on the valiant goals of the upper stages; address your employees’ basic need for security, make it clear they still have an important role and a home in the new environment.

Claire, of course, already knows all of this, but I had to work through it myself to arrive at a point where I could address the specifics of the learning culture task she set me, such as:

  • Risk-taking, experimentation and trust
  • Systems-thinking
  • A focus on personal mastery
  • Shared learning, a shared vision and goals
  • Insistence on spending the training budget, development and training as more than an afterthought or a tick-in-the-box, a learning “contract” as part of performance management
  • A focus on people as unique, creative individuals instead of as assets or costs to be minimized
  • Leaders setting the example and showing commitment (and thus showing that learning is “safe” – when was the last time you heard of a VP taking a company-sponsored course?)
  • Post-mortems that focus on what was learned and not just what went wrong and who’s to blame
  • “Hero stories” that link success to past learnings
  • Clear objectives that align learning and training to business strategy
  • The right environment, perhaps personally tailored to individual learning/team member styles, valuing differences in what is learned and how it is learned
  • Build learning into the work environment / process - make knowledge sharing an organizational habit

Whatever type of culture you want to create – customer-focused, data-driven, quality, learning -  go through this process, identify what the new target culture would look like, what behaviors would become commonplace, what levers you have available to effect this change in behavior, what new tools, data, processes or systems might be required, and most importantly, what is your plan to overcome the stasis; what are your tactics to reset the organizational and cultural thermostat.


About Author

Leo Sadovy

Marketing Director

Leo Sadovy currently manages the Analytics Thought Leadership Program at SAS, enabling SAS’ thought leaders in being a catalyst for conversation and in sharing a vision and opinions that matter via excellence in storytelling that address our clients’ business issues. Previously at SAS Leo handled marketing for Analytic Business Solutions such as performance management, manufacturing and supply chain. Before joining SAS, he spent seven years as Vice-President of Finance for a North American division of Fujitsu, managing a team focused on commercial operations, alliance partnerships, and strategic planning. Prior to Fujitsu, Leo was with Digital Equipment Corporation for eight years in financial management and sales. He started his management career in laser optics fabrication for Spectra-Physics and later moved into a finance position at the General Dynamics F-16 fighter plant in Fort Worth, Texas. He has a Masters in Analytics, an MBA in Finance, a Bachelor’s in Marketing, and is a SAS Certified Data Scientist and Certified AI and Machine Learning Professional. He and his wife Ellen live in North Carolina with their engineering graduate children, and among his unique life experiences he can count a singing performance at Carnegie Hall.

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