Bring on the Band: Let’s Change the Culture!

Most CEOs who think they need to improve dramatically probably do. They usually get into the mess they’re in because they didn’t execute a customer-focused business strategy well. Execution starts with enabling people to change how they do their work. Results don’t change unless work changes, all things equal.

But not all leaders understand this. Some think slogans and campaigns will do the trick. They turn to their HR, communication or marketing people and order up a “campaign to change the culture.”

I’ve harangued about this before and I’m doing it again. I’m convinced that creating a change program and giving it a name precipitates its failure.

I’m in good company. Jim Collins, the ever-so-practical and data-driven author of Good to Great, studied 1,435 good companies, examined their performance over 40 years and found  11 companies that became great. “Companies that make the change from good to great have no name for their transformation—and absolutely no program,” Collins says.

Attention leaders everywhere: Stop looking for the easy way out because there isn’t one. Launching a culture change program is a path to creating a big batch of waste that thumbs its nose at shareholders.

After 30 years of guiding leaders through significant change, I can assure you that if you give your change effort a name, you have just kissed it goodbye. Yes, business can be that simple.

Why is this?

Changing a culture, however minor or transformational it may be, requires changing what people do when they come to work. Making that change sustainable requires engaging people in a way that they voluntarily make the change and continue to do so because they’ve created an environment (read culture) that in every way reinforces continuous improvement.

That’s hard work, and certainly much more difficult than launching a culture change campaign that promises not much more than a momentary sugar buzz at a huge cost. Posters galore. Slogans: “Creating the Smith Company Way.” “Commitment cards,” or banners in the employee cafeteria that require leaders to “voluntarily” sign to demonstrate they’re on board. Meetings and more meetings about the importance of living the new culture.

The fancy media light show has lost its connection to real work. It’s akin to a sports team abandoning practice and hoping the band will be loud enough to win the game.

I recently observed a change program make its way through a $20 billion company. There was a lot of activity. Plenty of talk about “creating our culture.” But not once did I see one of these “culture change” meetings teach people how to conduct root cause analysis that would help eliminate barriers to faster new product introductions, improved customer retention or reductions in inventories and re-work.

So what should you do to improve your business performance?

  1. Make sure you have the right people in the right positions and involve them in the process.
  2. As a leader, model the way through what you do and what you say–how you use your time, what questions you ask, what’s first on your agenda and who you reward and recognize.
  3. Really understand the customer’s requirements for quality, delivery and cost.
  4. Start doing more of the things that meet those requirements and stop doing things that don’t. Get waste out of the business.
  5. Align your systems and processes so they reinforce the right things and make it difficult to do the wrong things. Systems and processes include leadership, measurement, communication, work processes, rewards, recognition, learning and development, structure and technology.
  6. Continuously improve the way work gets done and the results that are created. Over and over and over. Forever!

It sounds difficult doesn’t it?  Perhaps that’s why only 11 companies in Collins’ study moved from good to great.

Have you’ve successfully improved your company the hard way?  Let me know!


  1. Jim, having worked together at Abbott Labs (Good to Great case study,) I can state first hand your points are spot on! Unlike my other recent experiences with global companies who “require” leaders to sign the poster or fly the values banner like a billboard ad across the manufacturing floor, they fail to address the beliefs and behaviors that drive culture change. This understanding truly comes from the work done at the root cause level you discuss.

    Aligning the say and do is tough work and not for the faint of heart. As you have indicated in your book; “you can’t not communicate. Everything you say and do communicates.” System and process alignment must play from the same songbook.

    As the band plays the song of the week change fatigue lessens the real work that’s necessary for successful change to take root and flourish. John

    1. Thank you, John. You are so right. Managing the say and do to create better results is hard work and not for the faint of heart. The alternative, trying to change an organization through slogans, banners and posters, is a waste of shareholder money. Either do it right or don’t do it at all.

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