Culture’s role in enabling organizational change

Executive summary

For all the money and effort that go into corporate change initiatives, they have a decidedly mixed success rate. Only about half of transformation initiatives accomplish and sustain their goals, according to a survey on culture and change management by the Katzenbach Center.

Among the biggest obstacles to successful change are “change fatigue” (which occurs when workers are asked to follow through on too many changes at once) and a lack of the capabilities needed to make major changes last. Sixty-five percent of survey respondents cited change fatigue, and only about half felt their organization had the capabilities to deliver change. Another problem is the tendency for management to exclude lowerlevel employees in developing and executing the change plan.

The role of culture was a particular focus of the survey. Although 84 percent of all respondents think culture is critically important, a far smaller percentage (less than half) believe their companies do a good job of managing culture. The same respondents who see their companies’ change programs as falling short tend to say that culture isn’t a priority in their companies’ transformation initiatives.

The survey points to the need for companies to take a more holistic approach to change and to find ways to work with and within the organization’s culture during change initiatives. This is not to say that culture-enabled transformation removes the need for formal change management processes or techniques. It doesn’t. But it does mean that leaders need to rethink how to drive and sustain change if they want to materially increase the success of their transformation programs.

Change imperatives

Culture is not a shortcut to successful corporate change. Nor is culture-led transformation less rigorous than more conventional types of transformation — it involves just as much time and effort. Culture-led transformations require a fundamentally sound set of change objectives and discipline in the sense of setting priorities. Performing a culture diagnostic, identifying a critical few behaviors, capitalizing on employee pride and commitment, engaging in effective storytelling, and leveraging informal peer networks are just a few of the ingredients in the change recipe. We will dig more deeply into these and other factors in a subsequent paper.

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