Six Long and Short Cuts to Crack Culture Change

Lessons from seventeen years cementing new cultures

Rather than a comprehensive how-to guide, the following summarises key actions that deserve more emphasis. Because they are always the arbiters of success.

Long Cuts:

      • Explain the outcomes delta, ie the contrast between the benefits of change and the penalties of stasis, to as many people as you can. If you can’t win that argument, stop! Either you’re wrong, or they are not the people you need. I leave it to you to decide which is more likely…
      • Consult widely, listen to opinions, be ready to change your plans. Don’t confuse spinning the old plan harder with adjusting to a new plan!
      • If there is any initiative fatigue (there almost certainly is) tell the truth about why this initiative is going to be different from earlier ones. Both in terms of effectiveness of execution and leadership commitment. If you can’t (because it isn’t) you need to fundamentally question the reasons for attempting it.Buy-in Works, imposition fails. It takes time to respectfully build buy-in, the more effort here, the more certain you can be of success:
  1. Change everything. People won’t think you’re serious unless product brochures, key performance indicators, personal development plans, appraisal criteria, organizational structure etc reflect and embody the new way. Otherwise people will disengage and it’s all over.
  2. Keep going. Successful culture change is the aggregated result of countless small changes persistently applied, and the summation of those behavioural and thinking changes in every individual in the business. So organizational change moves in waves that are more often like several Severn Bores than a single Tsunami.


Short cuts:

  1. Convert dissidents, fire terrorists. Minority opinions expressed constructively are invaluable – only by questioning how we do things can we find new ways to improve. However when a dissident refuses to accept well tested, widely shared opinions about the organisation’s future, they risk becoming what Tom Peters calls a terrorist – their primary interest is in a personal agenda which conflicts with the business’s best interests. Fire them early, otherwise people will question your commitment, and while terrorists remain they slow down or even derail change. No-one likes firing people – but they threaten everyone else’s future.
  2. Foster ownership. Focus people on their own change, not on other people. If everyone is waiting for their neighbour or boss to change first, progress never begins. If they use other’s minor failures as a reason not to try themselves, progress is fatally impeded right from the very start.
  3. Invest more in change training than in communication. A common mistake when people don’t change the first time you tell them the new way, is to assume they didn’t get it, and so go right ahead and tell them again. Cue the second round of money-wasting, redundant, staff-alienating road shows!They get it, they recognise the need for change just as much as you. You’ve either failed to win them over (in which case see point 1a above), or much more likely, their attempts at personal behavioural change are not working, or haven’t even started because they don’t believe they CAN change. Invest in training them in how to change – will power isn’t the secret – cognitive restructuring is. Humans only ever change by making adjustments in the unconscious, it’s a lot simpler than it sounds, and always delivers.

That’s always.

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