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Culture and Change Management

Feb. 13, 2014
If the culture of an organization is not closely aligned with the company’s strategic goals, a major change is going to be harder to pull off.

These days I hear a lot of talk about the role of culture in change management—whether it’s possible to “lead” organizational change using culture as a vehicle.

There’s a new study out by the Katzenbach Center at Booz & Company that looks at this. The report suggest that culture influences change, but culture change is not the same as change management. 

Most managers and executives are well aware of how important culture is to their companies’ success. But it’s not always factored into change management processes. The Katzenbach Center study found that the least successful change initiatives tended not even to consider culture. And more successful initiatives leveraged cultural strengths to support them. 

It makes sense.  If the culture of an organization is not closely aligned with the company’s strategic goals, a major change is going to be harder to pull off.   

Here’s a classic example of the intersection of culture and change:  the merger of Schroders PLC with Salomon Smith Barney in 2000. Here was an old English bank steeped in a family-style, client-oriented values integrating with an American corporation with a much more aggressive style. Observers predicted that the culture clash would force many Schroders execs to quit. But it didn’t happen. We can only assume that the cultural side of change was managed well at the time.     

I don’t believe culture change will ever replace formal change management processes.  But culture can enable and support change, if it’s leveraged right. Maybe your company has strong informal employee networks or a learning environment that could enhance your formal change process.  The point is not that culture is harmful or beneficial to change, because it can be either. The point is to pay attention to it as you plan your change process.  

Some organizations now build cultural assessment into their formal change process. Prosci’s Change Management Maturity Model audit tool can help with this. There are also tools that are more specifically focused on culture itself rather than change management maturity.

How well do you really understand your company culture?  Can it be levered to support formal change management efforts? Or does it contain elements that could cause those efforts to backfire or stall? These questions are well worth asking before you start on any major change project.

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