‘Change Or Die!’ The Culture Of Your Organization


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by Mike Manes


Should you attempt to change the culture of your organization? Mike Manes recommends that you restructure the plans, processes, and systems to achieve the maximum possible results inside your existing culture.


I recently read a great article in Fast Company magazine that stated, “What if a doctor said you had to make tough changes in the way you think and act, or your time would end soon? Could you change? Here are the scientifically studied odds: Nine to one. That’s nine to one against you.”

This article shows that it’s very difficult to get one person to change. Relatively speaking, individual change is very easy compared with organizational change.

To change the Culture of an organization you must get everyone to change. The reason that there’s often enthusiasm, or at least acceptance of new ideas in business, is because everyone in the organization is OK with the need for others to change. The problem occurs and resistance surfaces when it’s discovered that everyone (even me!) must change. Consider the Crabby Road cartoon in which Maxine declared, “change is good, as long as I don’t have to do anything different!”

Culture is defined as “that distinctive constellation of beliefs, values, work styles, and relationships that distinguish one organization from another.” (Diagnosing Organizational Culture, Roger Harrison and Herb Stokes, Pfeiffer & Co. © 1992).

For years I’ve preached the parallel gospels of Change Management (putting out fires and building bridges) and Change Architecture (creating the future). I’ve always prefaced presentations and articles with a disclaimer that “attempting to change an organization is very, very difficult.” Today I stand humbled, but wiser in reversing — or at least refining — my earlier disclaimer.

I don’t think most managers should attempt to change the Culture of their organization. Instead, they should restructure the plans, processes, and systems to achieve the maximum possible results inside their existing Culture.

The Fast Company article got me thinking. A green card completed this transformation of my thought process. Let me explain. I’m neither a documented foreign worker nor an illegal alien. David, a friend and fellow board member of my college, handed a green card to me after a recent meeting. This card listed these words: PETA, Greenpeace, Birkenstock, used Volvos, Vegan, etc. These terms mirrored accurately some of the values of the vast majority of the faculty and students. To say that this institution is liberal is an understatement.

I’m conservative. I believe in personal responsibility, the work ethic, less government intervention, and the possibilities of the human spirit. I tend to be overly optimistic and enthusiastic about new ideas and their potential. I respect diversity, but often am not in tune with the different values of diverse peoples. I’m often overconfident in my ability to sell others on my ideas. The more I believe in these ideas, the more aggressive I become in defending or “selling” my position.

Many of the people in our organization see me as “slightly to the right of Attila the Hun,” out of touch, and not understanding. These are the feelings of my friends — others aren’t as kind. The reality is that my beliefs and values are right for me and wrong for others with different feelings and thoughts.

David’s green card was the “cold water in the face” that I needed. When I saw the words, I realized that I could never get most of these folks to abandon PETA or wear wingtips instead of Birkenstocks. They’re different.

David said, “Mike, you’re trying to get the students to adopt a business and marketing model that’s foreign to them. They aren’t going to change soon — at age 40 they might. The secret to our success will be in doing the most we can with the Culture they have here.” He was right! We don’t have the time, energy, or resources to change the Culture of our school. The best we can do is to maximize the results we get inside of the cultural boundaries that exist.

To change the Culture of an organization requires choosing one of two steps:

  • Change the people (fire most everyone and start anew).
  • Change the people (reshape the Roles/Values of those in the organization).

Anybody can fire existing staff. However, few, if any, owners are willing or able to do this — or they can’t be sure that they can find replacement players. Changing the values of people is far more difficult. Although the Marines do this well, they’re the exception rather than the rule (and they use a Boot Camp model that won’t fly in today’s business world).

I often use John Kennedy’s speech of May 25, 1961 about “putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” as an example of the effectiveness of vision. In retrospect, JFK’s genius lay not so much in his Vision as in understanding that this “impossible dream” was doable by changing the values. If he hadn’t been able to change those values, we’d still be having committee meetings and congressional investigations and wondering if the moon is really made of cheese.

Michael G. Manes can be reached at Square One Consulting, 625 Weeks Street New Iberia, LA 70560, 337-577-3885 (Cell), e-mail [email protected], or visit www.squareoneconsulting.com.
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