Dooming Culture Change to Fail – 5 Common Mistakes

If I didn’t know better I’d be firmly convinced that many leaders get up in the morning and deliberately try to confuse the hell out of their employees.

I’ve been guiding business leaders through major and minor change processes for more than 30 years. Some target the whole company; others focus on improving branch operations, distribution centers, business units, sales forces, or manufacturing plants. In every case, the goal is to measurably improve operating and financial performance.

Huge success stories such as GE and Ford are well documented. So, too, are the many failures that well outnumber successes.

I worked with a company a few years ago typical of an organization that believes it can smile and slogan its way to increased prosperity. The leaders there seemed to think that if they just print, pass out and post enough rah-rah blather, their employees will mindlessly obey, change the way they work and within months become a best company to work for or most admired company in its industry.

Some leaders are learning from the mistakes of others. But by and large more still ignore or are unaware of the most common mistakes made by organizations needing to go through significant change efforts.

Here are the five most common mistakes leaders make when trying to guide their organizations through “culture change.”

If you’re reading this as the CEO, consider this fair warning: The people who are in positions to support you in a change effort have a responsibility to politely say NO when asked to repeat the mistakes of the past. They can then help you set the organization on the right course. Don’t make the following mistakes.

1. Try to change the culture.

Culture is loosely defined as “the way we do things around here.” It’s driven by the combined values of the organization. Values drive what gets done. But, leaders make the mistake of trying to change this huge amorphous thing called the culture when they should be focusing on changing how work gets done. Results don’t change unless work changes. When you change how work gets done you can start to change the culture. Start by changing something more manageable—the work. Read on.

2. Make changes without direction from customers.

Some leaders begin by cleaning up internal systems and processes without first gathering rigorous data about customer requirements. This can create a flurry of activity that lulls people into believing they’re “changing the culture.” Change should be externally driven. Employees want to do great things for customers and customers want your people to do great things for them. Friction, however, often gets in the way. Friction comes in many forms—mixed messages, poorly designed reward systems, lack of or improper training, misdirected goals, lousy leadership, lack of employee involvement, etc. To make lasting change, identify customer requirements, then eliminate the friction.

3. Name the change effort.

This might sound like a small thing. But naming your change effort “Creating the Culture for Growth,” or anything else represents a symbolic first step toward disconnecting your change effort from real work. Employees in many companies are tired of programs du jour. They don’t need another program supported by expensive slogan-laden posters, brochures and banners. They need a serious, well directed effort that improves organizational performance in a proper way. Naming your change effort facilitates compartmentalizing it. When that happens leadership meetings often take on two different agendas: one focused on operating and financial issues; the other focused on the change program. They should be one and the same or you’re doomed.

4. Let the “say communication” get ahead of the “do communication.”

Change programs often are launched with all employee meetings, culture clinics and offsite retreats to create vision statements, appoint change ambassadors and take superficial action that promotes the change effort. It’s more about the talk than it is about the walk. Eventually employees get “cultured out” because they don’t see the walk matching the talk. Leaders begin to lose credibility. This is usually fatal. It’s far easier to begin managing the walk and the talk consistently than it is revitalizing a change effort with leaders who are no longer credible.

5. Implement the change effort from the top down.

Change needs to be about WE, not me and not you. It starts with a clear, shared vision and a sense of urgency. A vision is the equivalent of the box top to a 1,000 piece puzzle. The box top depicts what the puzzle looks like when it’s completed. People who know what the puzzle looks like in the end will likely put the puzzle together faster than those who don’t.

Leaders need to engage people in the puzzle building process, providing resources to improve work on behalf of customers and then guide the overall effort. All throughout the process, people in the organization need to know how they will benefit from the improvements they’re making. That’s the critical “what’s in it for me” that we all need.


  1. Spot on, Jim, as always. Just to add an amusing twist on point 3, I used to tell folks in workshops if they just couldn’t resist the temptation to have a theme to label their improvement initiative – which was usually reduced to acronym within a few weeks or days following its introduction – here’s what they should do. Call it JTWWDTAH. Of course, everyone would chuckle, and I’d ask them if anyone knew what it stood for. In all of my workshops with hundreds of people around the country, only one person ever guessed it, i.e. Just the Way We Do Things Around Here. I don’t think anyone ever took me up on the idea, but it always made a pretty strong impression on folks.

  2. Excellent list of what not to do, particularly #2 Making changes without the Voice Of The Customer, and not engaging your employees. Successfully managing the customer experience is difficult enough without being on top of (and many cases ahead of) ever-changing customer expectations.

  3. the best theory and practice I have read & experienced was Prof. Schein book and workshop on JTWWDTAH ????.

    taka a look for him on internet.

    Fully in line with Jim’s post.

    be inspired

    1. Edgar Schein’s Organizational Culture and Leadership (1985) was one of my early reads. Lots of foundational thinking.

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