The Place of Culture in Change Management

For regular readers of Capability Matters, you will be aware that I advocate the active management of the culture of an organisation.  In summary, my view is that while culture is an intangible, it is a risk to the strategic success of the organisation.  Just ask yourself how many times you have heard the 'culture of the organisation' given as an explanation for the less than expected success of various initiatives. So like any risk, responsible organisational leaders will actively manage it.

It may surprise you to hear me say then, that as Change/Organisation Development (OD) practitioners, we may get the focus on culture wrong. As a Change and OD practitioner I have been known to accuse our Project Manager counterparts of not giving sufficient weight to culture. I have been accused by Project Managers of 'worrying too much about this 'culture stuff'. So what is the right emphasis.

The answer is that it varies from case to case and depends on the extent of the change in both the tangibles and intangibles required to deliver the strategic objectives and outcomes.  The deeper the required change in the intangibles, the greater the focus on culture in your change strategy.



To help explain this, it is helpful to have two models in mind. Firstly, this familiar model of the levels of organisational culture.



Secondly, our model here that illustrates the type of change strategy as it relates to the amount of change on the tangibles and the intangibles.

So lets explore what an appropriate focus on culture is for each of these levels of change.

At the 'Continuous Improvement' level, cultural change is not a threat to the success of the initiative. Addressing culture at no more than the artefacts level, if even that, is likely to see a successful change initiative. The OD focus required is probably going to be on capability issues and system improvement. If continuous improvement is new to the organisation, and you are therefore seeking a shift in the intangible of acceptance of continuous improvement, then a deeper attention is likely to be required as you gain acceptance of a continuous improvement in the organisation. In this situation, refer to the 'Enabling level of change' below.

'Sequential' change requires more attention to culture. Addressing culture at the artefacts and norms level is likely to see your initiative be successful. The OD focus is best served on re-engineering, capability, leadership, and the needs of the individual in change.

An 'Enabling' level of change has culture as a significant threat to success.  The intangibles are a key focus of this type of change. Addressing culture at the 'Values' and possibly the 'Assumptions' level is required. The OD focus is therefore well served defining the desired cultural states and utilisation of cultural assessment methods. Interventions would then be developed based on the results of these assessments.

I suspect you have the thread of this approach by now. The 'Transformational' level, culture is of course a threat to success.  Culture must be the key OD focus at the 'Values' and the 'Assumptions' levels. As well as the project work around the tangible changes, the change management work will be defining the desired cultural states and utilising of cultural assessment methods. Again, interventions would then be developed based on the results of these assessments. 

I trust you find these concepts useful in your determination of the level of focus to put on organisational culture on the change initiatives you are leading. If you would like further assistance in the application of these concepts, we wold be delighted to help. Just go to the contact us page to find us.