Culture Change: Go Ugly Early – Go Ugly Fast

I was the Chairman at a three-day conference on Operational Excellence and Business Transformation recently and was really impressed by the number of people in attendance and the caliber of the speakers.

Some of the speakers discussed technology, and their vision of the future.  But most of the speakers focused on softer skills; leadership, innovation, collaboration, and so on.  And each one of these speakers had one phrase in common; culture change.  It is a theme that I have heard over and over again these past several years.

Strangely, I found myself pondering; “What does culture change even mean?”

For that matter; “What is culture?”  “Why would culture need to be changed?”   “What changes would need to be made?”  and “How would we go about changing the culture?”

Would we even know if our organizations already had the kind of culture that was needed, but we were the problem?  How could we tell?

What is culture?

When pondering a term, I like to start with a definition.  It serves as a lighthouse to which subsequent discussion and debate can be tethered.

According to Merriam-Webster (an online dictionary), “culture” is; the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group – and – the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.

Therefore and to the largest extent possible; culture defines the essence of who we and our organizations are.

What is culture change?

So, if culture defines the essence of who we and our organizations are, then it stands to reason it is a monumental undertaking – perhaps even unreasonable to expect – for a person or organization to abandon one definition of themselves for another.

Monumental and unreasonable, absolutely.  But it is possible and has happened in the past under the right circumstances.  Ultimately and at its core, it involves the conscious abandonment of one set of principles, beliefs, and behaviors in favor of another.

At an individual level, sometimes people change of their own volition for reasons that are often only known to them.  But it almost certainly involves an experience that has significant enough impact that it serves as the catalyst for the transformation.

For instance, during the Cold War, many a citizen of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries would abandon their definition of themselves and their way of existence in favor of the ways of the United States and Western Bloc countries.  This was referred to as “defecting” which is the use of the word defect (a noun meaning an imperfection or abnormality that impairs quality, function, or utility) as a verb meaning to forsake (abandon) one cause, party, or nation for another often because of a change in ideology.

Individuals who change in such a transformational manner are really quite rare.  Consider how many adults might change their religion in a given year, for example.  I am not referring to sects within a religion (for instance, Catholics and Protestants are sects of the Christian religion), but change religions (for instance, Christians becoming Hindus).  Of all the people you know, how many have made such a change or similar?

But changing masses of people, such as would constitute an organization, is much more challenging and requires considerable time and effort.  Take any revolution, for instance.  There might be a flashpoint that serves as the observable point of transformation.  But the angst, dissatisfaction, and vision of some future state had been fermenting for some time.

The fuse for the American Revolution in 1775 was lit in 1754 with the French and Indian and Seven Years’ Wars which resulted in the reviled Stamp Act of 1765.  And the fuse for the Russian Revolution of 1917 was lit in 1881 with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by a member of the radical group People’s Will.

Why would culture need to be changed?

Ultimately, a culture that is in need of change is one that has become unsustainable. 

With many organizations, a real culture change will almost always happen only when a credible external disruptor is introduced.  By credible, I mean the disruptor has truly destructive power (not that it must be used, but it must exist); and by external, I mean the disruptor will come from outside the existing organization.  Some examples of a credible external disruptor include; a company being acquired, the introduction of a new CEO or senior management team from outside the organization, a competitor that transforms an industry, a global financial crisis, a bankruptcy, a pandemic, and so on.

Company being acquired; We are seeing the being played out in real-time and very publicly with the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk, who purchased the company with the specific objective of transforming the company’s culture.  More on this below.

Introduction of a new CEO or senior management team from outside the organization; An example of introducing a new CEO being the catalyst for changing a culture would be Lou Gerstner’s appointment as the President of IBM in 1993.  After some analysis of IBM’s capabilities and the marketplace, Gerstner recognized the need to evolve from a company that made hardware to a company that was a provider of consulting services and software.

A competitor transforms an industry; Like everyone in the early 2000’s, I had a Blackberry made by Research in Motion (RIM) which is now BlackBerry Ltd.  As primitive as it was by today’s standards, it was arguably the first smartphone.  Truth be told, I have never been a fan of Apple and have never purchased one of their products, mostly because I just don’t like the ham-fisted way they control everything about their products.  But in 2007 I won an iPod Touch in a Texas Hold’em tournament and, looking at it, I couldn’t help but think it would be cool if they added mobile phone capability to it (it could already connect to WiFi).  The iPhone came out soon after and Blackberry all but disappeared almost immediately (now predominantly a software company).

A global financial crisis and bankruptcy; This is a two-fer.  The tale of the decline of General Motors is like watching a slow-motion train wreck that was 40 years in the making.  From its peak in the mid-1960’s, it increasingly found itself on its back foot with brands that competed with one another, unit costs that exceeded all peers, and the inability make any meaningful efforts to address any of its mounting problems.  But one global financial crisis leading to the Great Recession and an expedited bankruptcy that took only 30 days and General Motors was reborn, shed of the sins that accumulated over four decades.

Pandemic; Imagine it is December of 2019.  I just made a pitch to the senior executives of [insert name of Fortune 500 company here] that they no longer had to have their knowledge workers come to the office every day, rather, they could work remotely using telephony; you would still hear the echoes of the laughter as I was abruptly escorted from the building.  Along comes one COVID pandemic and – poof, like magic – all the knowledge workers are working remotely from home using telephony.

How would we go about changing the culture?

As mentioned above, culture change will take time and effort with the process being disruptive.  And there is a relationship between time, effort, and disruption.  The less time that is given and more effort that is required, the greater the disruption will be.  Conversely, the more time that is given and the less effort that is required, the less the disruption will be.  Of course, there are a near infinite number of positions between these two extremes.

Being water on the rock.

If there is time, then the culture change can be like water on the rock.  The rock will eventually succumb to the water, it will take time and constant pressure.

I have a client who is in the midst of a real culture change which started almost 10 years ago when the organization hired its present CEO from outside the organization and with the specific mandate to change the culture of the organization.

Whereas the present CEO is the epitome of a servant leader and seeks ways to empower every soul within the organization, the former CEO was autocratic who was quick to lay blame, chastise, and publicly humiliate and who had to be involved and approve of every decision made.  With such an authoritarian CEO, the ability of the company to scale is severely hampered, not to mention there not being a lot of joy to be had for working there.

The challenge is this; those who worked under the authoritarian CEO and the culture he created have been conditioned to believe that is the way CEOs are and are very reluctant to believe any other way could exist.  They are always waiting to be second-guessed or punished.

When I was younger, I had a paper-route.  There was one dog on the route that was extremely vicious towards me and always would attack when it saw me.  I am very fond of dogs and never did anything to this particular dog, so I could not understand its behavior towards me. 

One day, I was collecting from the customer and the vicious dog was on the other side of the door wanting to attack me.  The owner paid me, took the paper from me, rolled it up, and hit the dog with it. All became crystal clear at that moment.  The dog hated me because I was the person who delivered the instrument of its punishment.

We come into an organization and its existing culture.  We do not fully understand why it is the way it is, and it will not change at the pace we want, but it will change.  Be the water.

Go Ugly Early / Go Ugly Fast (GUE/GUF)

It’s nice to have time, but in most cases the runway is very short and the rate of change must be accelerated.  In these conditions, it is usually best to cut through (or out) the resistance and make the changes as quickly as possible.

For instance, we have never seen a video where someone having their hair removed using wax tells the stylist to take their time and remove the wax very slowly.  I do not believe such a request has ever been made.  Instead, the stylist knows to perform the task as quickly as possible so the pain that is felt is acute, but brief, and the healing can begin.

We can see this approach playing out presently in Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.

Keeping in mind that i) Musk purchased Twitter for the specific reason of changing its culture from what exists to something more to his liking, ii) it must be assumed the culture at Twitter was pervasive throughout the entirety of the organization, and iii) there is a very finite amount of time for Musk to carry out his intentions before he runs out of cash.  Therefore, Musk knows he must GUE/GUF.

So, it should be no surprise that Musk immediately fired all the senior leaders and the Board of Directors at Twitter the moment he took ownership of the company.  They were the architects of Twitter’s culture; GUE.

Or that even before Musk completed the purchase he shared plans with potential investors that he was going to reduce the workforce at Twitter by up to 75-percent from approximately 7,500 employees worldwide to 2,000.  Or that Musk terminated 4,400 contractors of the 5,500 engaged by Twitter.  These employees and contractors were the keepers of the culture at Twitter; GUF.

It helped that Twitter is losing $4-million a day, so the cuts can also be justified financially and not just as a means to eliminate the culture that existed at Twitter and instill a new culture; it makes the purging and culling seem less ugly.

But just like that, within 30 days of acquisition and the great purge, Musk says Twitter is done with the layoffs and terminations and is hiring again.  Is Twitter not losing money any longer (or as much money as before)?  Or maybe he feels he has excised enough of the old culture that he could rebuild; anyone remaining will either accept the new culture or self-select out; either the people will change, or the people will change.

On the other hand, Musk eliminated 75% of its workforce (employees and contractors) and the company and its offerings did not spin out of control or crash-and-burn.  Makes me wonder how many are truly necessary to run the company successfully.

Same as it ever was

The reality is that culture change rarely happens; not the transformative change we envision when we use the phrase, anyway.  The change that normally takes place is evolutionary, not revolutionary.  Then we are left wondering whether the pace is too slow or the change too small.  The answer to that will make itself known in good time.

I know of many companies who talk about the need for culture change.  They might even make bold proclamations that there is a grand effort to change the culture of the organization.  But the leadership does not change their ways, and others see that.  The result is no change.

Other leaders might frame the conversation in the collective “we”, such as when leaders fly their private jets to Davos while telling the world; “We must attack climate change”.

And yet others state that they need culture change but cannot unmistakably specify what the change might be.  Perhaps they do not really know.

Maybe culture change is like so many perpetual reorganizations which don’t have a specific end in mind.  But if enough attempts are made, a configuration that works might be found; if only by accident.

About the Author

Joseph Paris

Paris is an international expert in the field of Operational Excellence, organizational design, strategy design and deployment, and helping companies become high-performance organizations.  His vehicles for change include being the Founder of; the XONITEK Group of Companies; the Operational Excellence Society; and the Readiness Institute.

He is a sought-after speaker and lecturer and his book, “State of Readiness” has been endorsed by senior leaders at some of the most respected companies in the world.

Click here to learn more about Joseph Paris or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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