Can culture really be managed?

As Peter Drucker once said: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ That’s why culture change is often considered the supreme discipline in change management. Strategies, organizations, processes or rules can be developed and changed relatively easily on paper. But does the desired change actually manifest itself in the people’s behavior and the organization’s social structure? Science and the consulting industry are therefore constantly developing new models for understanding culture in different ways, and new trends in consulting are emerging, each promising the philosopher’s stone. Is this all voodoo – or what of all this really works? And: What is culture in an organization anyway? How can it actually be changed in a targeted manner? And what can external consulting services contribute?

 ‘Culture is the music that everyone in the organization dances to, even if no one can really hear it’ (Bernd Schmidt)

Culture is a dazzling concept, because every science that has dealt with it has its own definition of culture. There are cultural artifacts that can literally be seen like the reception area of a proud medium-sized company with a portrait of the company founder. Or the friendly professional appearance of its service employee. And there are less visible cultural elements such as lived values and norms according to which the people in the organization behave. And it is manifested in the deep-rooted convictions and beliefs that unite the majority of the people in an organization and give them identity. Edgar Schein has divided the phenomenon of culture very accurately into three levels: visible artefacts, norms and values and deep shared beliefs.
If one changes strategies, organizations or processes, one wants to adapt the behavior of the people to these new organizations. In the new organization with flatterhierarchical structures, for example, employees should behave more openly, more committed, more independently, more “agile”, more collaborative or more customer-oriented than before in the “old” organization. Essentially, it is about setting new norms of behavior.
Human behavior is deeply rooted and behavior patterns are usually stable. They are rooted on the one hand in the individual’s personality, motives, values and experiences – and on the other hand they are shaped by the values, beliefs, patterns of thought, identity and behavioral norms of the organization in which we move.


I would have wanted, but I didn’t dare to allow myself (Karl Valentin)

For us, cultural ‘traditional’ behavioral patterns and norms reduce complexity and provide for harmonization. Once I have understood the cultural patterns of an organization, I know how to behave in order to belong to it. And I adopt this as a pattern so that I don’t have to think over and over again how I should behave. Such patterns save energy and time.
This means, however, that my deep-rooted personality factors and values as well as the traditional patterns of my organization strongly stabilize my behavior. These two force fields can have an enormous holding effect and make change difficult. If people are supposed to change their behavior, they need to have the will and ability (personal factors) as well as should and may (organizational factors).

Everything is connected to everything

Like biological systems, organizations are complex systems in which many things are connected with many things. In a broader sense one can call such a system culture. In such cultures and with these cultural elements people satisfy their needs for security, recognition or development. They serve for identification, self-assurance and demarcation.
Cultures and cultural elements cannot be technically categorized and switched on and off. They are living organic dynamic entities and have a drive for self-preservation. This is another reason why they are stable for the time being.

Can cultures at least be measured or classified? There are a variety of instruments on the consulting market to measure and at least categorize cultures – some scientifically developed or tested – others are more likely based on evidence-based theoretical models. Depending on the approach, they measure aspects such as personality types, values and norms, motives, emotions, behavioral tendencies, leadership styles, identity patterns, self-images, or individual willingness to change.
These approaches and survey instruments (some of which we are happy to work with) are usually very complex polarity profiles, which are then graphically reduced to two or more dimensions for better presentation. Such dimensions are, for example, degrees of maturity, willingness to take risks, openness, external/internal orientation. Or the cultures are simply assigned to certain ‘culture types’. These models work by simplifying the complex phenomenon of culture in some of its facets and thus making it treatable. And they roughly show starting points for change.

Nevertheless, survey instruments are NOT an exact diagnosis like an MRI scan of a body that creates transparency down to the last molecule. But even the MRI scan does not take hormonal control cycles into account and therefore only understands a single aspect. Culture models are a reduction of reality that reflect one aspect of culture. They do NOT reflect the complex dynamics and causal relationships of human behavior in an organization. How has a cultural pattern developed, with which ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ factors is it connected? Where are the barriers or incentives for change?
This is exactly what change management is all about – especially culture change.

Culture Change is empathic manual and mental work

If you want to change organizations, you have to try to really understand the visible and invisible causal relationships in order to put the lever in the right place. To do this, you have to listen carefully to the people in the organization – and ask the right questions. You have to develop an empathic feeling for what is behind a behavior. You have to understand how the interaction of organizational structures and cultural elements in the past made the organization into what it is now.
And you have to provide an important transfer service: To analyze which cultural elements are functional for the future of the organization in terms of the strategy and which other cultural elements are needed in the future.
Because every interaction with people in the organization is also an intervention, respect and appreciation for the past is part of it. And still a clear view for the dysfunctional issues and the future challenges paired with a solution-oriented attitude. It is all about attentive, subjective understanding. The main qualification is to ask the right questions that allow a change of perspective. This sounds simple but requires the right questioning techniques and experience. With all the instrumentalized subjectivity, however, I would also like to make it clear that a consulting process does not mean anything arbitrary, purely subjective. It is always important to search for evidence, for plausible causes and causal relationships. If categories and models are needed to reduce complexity for the customer, then these methods should be evidence-based. So: If models are needed, they should not be arbitrary, but rather be based on a scientific background.


For the customer: Golden Nuggets, focus points and fields of action

The point is to extend all antennas in the consulting process, to try to grasp many aspects of the culture and to let them affect you in order to understand them in context. There are tools for this. We gladly make use of Design Thinking tools.
As a consultant you can really find ‘golden nuggets’ in such a qualitative interview! Deep insights into interrelationships that cannot be visible to the client (usually a manager) because the latter is usually part of the system.  However, such (often) surprising insights are usually not enough in a culture change project. What is to be done with these insights? It is not enough to simply unload the entire complexity and the interrelationships of culture and structure to an organization from the client in a descriptive way.

A consultant must be able to focus and prioritize. In a change project, the consultant must reduce this complexity (together with the client) and work out concrete options for action. This is a creative act, which makes the important and effective focus topics and change levers visible. But it is also part of the process to make the client aware of the systematic connections and consequences of using these levers. Sometimes this can lead to the desire for change being re-initiated.


If this is the solution – I want my problem back

Like biological systems, organizational cultures have a certain stability and resistance to change. This is not only due to inertia or traditional behavior. Much is connected with many things and cultural elements stabilize each other. With human organizations this is even more complex – then, unlike a forest, people have an awareness and see through strategies and question them. In most cases, changes also entail risks or costs for the individual. Change management by tool or checklist (or more recently by canvas) is often thought too trivial. Example: Changes often create dilemmas. For example, if you want to preserve the cultural core (for example, the ‘family’ cultural element of a company, but want to introduce corporate structures. These dilemmas must be resolved or at least addressed because change can work.


Sustainable change instruments

There are several generic change levers that correspond to the systemic character of cultures and which are above all effective:

  • Leadership and trust – investing in credibility and joint alignment of management teams
  • Attention and concern (‘sense of urgency’) needs to be established. Here it often requires a loud ‘bang’ at the beginning to create the necessary attention
  • Communicating a clear visual vision of the future that is attractive
  • Developing a credible storyline (where do we come from, what is the threat, where do we have to go and how do we get there?)
  • Effective narratives that involve everyone and pick up on their needs and feelings
  • Changing hard contexts by removing organizational or process barriers (you need to know them)
  • Creating targeted incentives – and I don’t just mean money 😉
  • Symbolically setting behavioral norms and thus effectively replace old ones. That can also mean to replace a leadership function
  • Addressing dilemmas, contradictions and setbacks
  • Reducing risks for employees to engage in new activities
  • Addressing needs and feelings
  • Creating self-reflection and reaching every individual by asking questions like: what does this mean for me and my behavior?
  • Saying goodbye to the past in an appreciative manner
  • Changing perception perspectives
  • Simplifying work with images and symbols and draw attention
  • Working with communicative elements of belonging and identity


The supreme discipline within the supreme discipline

There is a patent recipe for change that works in almost every Culture Change project: Participation!
Every change brings with it uncertainty and risks – even if it means that familiar patterns of behavior become ineffective. This always carries the risk of negative emotions and open or hidden resistance. But in most cases, actively involving employees in the change process is exactly the right recipe against this. If people can help shape their own future and their new jobs, they become part of the new and lose their fear. Self-efficacy creates self-confidence you make open and free for creativity. Allowing participation and sometimes even tolerating detours is a living proof of the leadership’s trust. We therefore try to incorporate as many participatory elements as possible in every change project. Even if it costs time and resources. In contrast to classical strategy consulting, in Culture Change it would be a mistake to deliver ready-made concepts. This is the reason why strategy consultancies have such a hard time with culture change projects.

The self-reflection of the individual is already built into a participatory consulting and change process and only needs to be supported by consultants and managers (for example through coaching). In such change projects, employees and talents often grow beyond themselves and show their talents. At the same time such self-designed changes are often more sustainable. A culture change project, like any project, also needs an agile roadmap or a classic project plan. And in most cases, it needs a professional communication structure.


Culture Change can work but it is a transformational journey

In summary, I would like to say: Culture Change can work. But it’s more like a long expedition trip that you plan well and where you also prepare for eventualities and can react spontaneously. Human behavior patterns are deeply rooted, and so cultural elements are often very stable and resistant to change. And every change in the system always has its price, which one should know before taking action. Changing human perspectives and behavior is more like dancing tango then checks and orders. The more one can actively involve all people in the change, the better it works. In addition, it makes sense, at least in the analysis and planning phase, to obtain external consulting services that have experience in such change projects and, above all, bring an external perspective to the table. By the way, there is a clear indication for me to refuse a change project: If management cannot provide a clear, strategically justified change intention. It is not always necessary to have worked out all the details of a business strategy. Purely culturally based ideas for change – for example, those based on a humanistic ideal – are often predestined to fail because the factual foundation is missing.
I think it is similar to the old Bauhaus motto: ‘Form follows Function’:  ‘Change follows Strategy’.


If you are interested or have any questions – please do not hesitate to contact us directly!

Alexander Gisdakis
CEO and Partner Breitenstein Consulting