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 / Spring 2014 / Issue 74(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Critical Few: Components of a Truly Effective Culture

Forget the monolithic change management programs and focus on the elements of your culture that drive performance.

Sometimes corporate culture manifests itself in a make-your-own-taco party in the office kitchenette. Sometimes you can see it when an outdated phone bank is converted into an on-site ice cream shop. And sometimes it’s on display when senior leaders pick up paintbrushes to turn formerly bland office walls into electric blue work spaces. These are examples of the “Culture Blitz” at work at Southwest Airlines Company, where a 40-year culture is still going strong and is further invigorated by traveling teams who volunteer every year to visit hundreds of employees to show their appreciation. And it’s infectious.

Mary Widen is a Southwest Culture Blitz member who will never forget the first time she “hokeyed” an airplane. (Although the hokey is in fact a line dance, at Southwest it’s also the name of the small carpet sweeper used to clean the plane between flights.) It’s traditionally the responsibility of the flight attendants to clean the plane, but once in a while Culture Blitz members take over this task and give the flight attendants time off and bags of snacks. “The flight attendants were in shock—you would have thought I had given them a bag of jewelry. They were yelling ‘thank you’ at me long after I had walked away. It was their unexpected good moment of the week, and they were so grateful. And that refuels you. And those good feelings last long after the hokeying is complete. People keep in touch after, and that makes Southwest feel like a real family,” says Widen.

These are the types of experiences that a strong culture creates. To sustain such a culture, Southwest and other enterprises understand that key behaviors have to be actively managed and made visible. Companies with the most effective culture seek out and continually reinforce what Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012), calls “keystone habits.” A keystone habit, Duhigg has noted, is “a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organization.” Companies that recognize and encourage such habits stand to build cultures with influence that goes beyond employee engagement and directly boosts performance.

Too few leaders recognize the outsized influence of these key behaviors, however. Their efforts to improve performance remain ill focused and diffuse. They find it hard to resist the temptation to pile one directive on top of another; even when those efforts are aligned to the same ultimate goals, they often undermine one another. Further, when those efforts are focused on significant changes to the culture, they are almost always too comprehensive, programmatic, esoteric, and urgent. Leaders fail to appreciate how deeply culture can be ingrained in people’s beliefs and habits—and, therefore, how very difficult it will be to change behavior in a way that will last.

We have found, through numerous cultural interventions with a wide range of organizations, from HP and Bell Canada to major enterprises in India, Australia, and the Middle East, that companies that eschew all-encompassing culture change initiatives and instead focus on three specific elements—critical behaviors, existing cultural traits, and critical informal leaders—have the most success. We call these “the critical few.”

The first elements, critical behaviors, are those ways of doing things in your current operations that can easily spread from one employee to another; they have the potential to generate a real business impact, particularly when they become habitual and widespread. Moreover, you would recognize them right away if respected leaders at various levels throughout the organization started putting them into practice.

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  1. DeAnne Aguirre, Rutger von Post, and Micah Alpern, “Culture’s Role in Enabling Organizational Change,” Booz & Company, Nov. 2013: Results and insights from the Katzenbach Center’s 2013 Culture and Change Management Survey.
  2. George C. Halvorson, “The Culture to Cultivate,” Harvard Business Review, July 2013: The CEO of Kaiser Permanente writes that instilling a foundational culture of continuous improvement is the only way to unify an organization as large and diverse as his.
  3. Jon R. Katzenbach and Adam Michaels, “Life in the Matrix,” s+b, Autumn 2013: Essential analysis of the major cultural shift required as companies evolve away from traditional hierarchies.
  4. Chuck Lucier, “Herb Kelleher: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Summer 2004: The cofounder of Southwest Airlines discusses his company’s people-centered culture.
  5. The Katzenbach Center at Booz & Company website: Ongoing source of research and insight on culture change theories and methods.
  6. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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