The one thing you shouldn’t bother changing and the one thing you should


Lots of organisations try to change culture. They try and change that loads.

But nobody really knows what it is. Not enough to point at and say “that’s culture there” and “that isn’t“.

The Harvard Business Review says…

“there is little consensus on what organizational culture actually is, never mind how it influences behavior and whether it is something leaders can change.”

But regardless of not really knowing what culture is, culture change programmes are grandly named, paraded throughout the organisation like a neighbour with his flash new car, and as grandly and loudly as they arrive, they equally quietly with no announcement, disappear without trace.

I think that in itself is a sign of the culture of an organisation, how they attempt to change culture. Like team development sessions writ large, an honest attempt is made to make people act differently and better in some way, there is some initial feel-good change before an inevitable slip back into exactly the same place as before.

Just as team development doesn’t, culture change isn’t.

Why not though?

Cos culture, whatever it is, or at least the important bits that affect how work is done, are all part of something else that’s much bigger….


But what?….


Yes! The system! God I do bang on so, don’t I?

But it’s important, it is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together the thing that affects the work.

All the work.Capture

You can find it by looking for the things that help or hinder achievement of customer purpose. When you find anything that helps or hinders, that’s the system. Anything else just isn’t important. It’s not part of the system, not the one your interested in so don’t waste your time, move on. Nothing to look at.

But when you DO find something that helps or hinders, it’s part of the system of the design and management of work. Imagine it’s something that some people might call “cultural“. ie staff demotivated or not bothering with something. Excessive love of forms or of IT or a “not my problem” attitude. Is this the culture? Have you found it and can change it? Spray some away-days or snazzy roadshows at it?

Sadly no, cos culture is…


The culture is read-only!
Culture is an effect of the system, it is a feature of it. Just as much a part of the system as the IT systems, the rules, the automated phone system.
You want to change the culture? Change the cause of the culture. Not the culture itself. Can’t be done.

Trying to change the culture directly is like putting an umbrella up and expecting it to stop raining.
Instead change the cause of the system that produces the culture. The thinking!

The thinking can be changed, just not through the roadshows and banners that people try and change culture.
Thinking changes through learning. Learning happens in the work. Not in a roadshow.


This entry was posted in change, command and control, plausible but untrue, psychology, systems thinking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The one thing you shouldn’t bother changing and the one thing you should

  1. Tobias says:

    Damn good post.


  2. Silvana Wasitova says:

    Love this clear articulation of the components, the cause-and-effect, and the summary of “change the thinking through learning while doing the work”!


  3. Manage the system, not the people. Culture is a result of what you’ve set your system up for, the more visible human result… – Great post!


  4. Manjit Singh says:

    Love it! Thank you for articulating this so well. This has helped me gain insights on where to focus efforts when I am leading a change in an organization..


  5. Brendan Rodgers Teeth says:

    I’ve found culture in organisations comes from people’s general outlook or positivity outside of work, the extent to which management ‘rule by fear’, and workplace incentives and career development opportunities.


  6. Pingback: How to have an organisational detox! | thinkpurpose

  7. Shyam says:

    Great Post. Thanks !!!


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