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strategy and business
Published: January 19, 2011
 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62


Stop Blaming Your Culture

• Enlist your current “cultural carriers.” These are the people who are well positioned to transmit behaviors to others, and who can be developed to spread the positive elements of the existing culture. In the early 2000s, Reliant Energy recognized the value of cultural carriers during an operational performance improvement program. After defining a small set of behaviors for collaborative work across functional silos, Reliant identified the people who had to act differently in order for the new behavior to take hold. Then, through a combination of training, incentives, and peer-to-peer reinforcement, Reliant induced these individuals to change first. This effort enabled the company to capture $600 million of value during the first nine months.

Any leader can do something similar, but take care that the effort is simple, clearly focused, collectively reinforcing, and not threatening to those who aren’t included. Suppose that you’re the head of strategy, frustrated at the way such new directives are executed. Have the top leadership identify 10 people who are linchpins of strategy execution — whose participation is critical to any serious strategic effort. Bring them together to talk about the barriers they face when trying to execute new ideas, and the ways that they might overcome those boundaries. Look for places where resources can be organized differently, and develop an agenda accordingly.

• Use the culture you already have. Take pains to stay within the most essential tenets of the existing culture. Make sure you understand clearly the reasons that current practices exist before you try to change them. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, many oil companies are being forced to change their safety and environmental practices. It can be surprisingly difficult to do so, because the existing performance contracts include strict requirements about timing and deadlines. The only way around this is to explicitly rethink those restrictions, taking on the difficult challenge of designing new behaviors that can improve safety while maintaining an acceptable pace. What is required here is an integration of process discipline and individual initiative and the courage to step up when the unexpected occurs.

• Model what matters most. Be a visible and consistent role model of the behavior change you want to see in others. When he was interim CEO of General Motors leading the company’s remarkable transformation after the U.S. government bailout in 2009, Fritz Henderson repeatedly admonished his staff to be “individually and collectively accountable,” which meant focusing only on activities directly linked to business results. Henderson’s remarks didn’t have much impact until he provided examples. He posted e-mails with typos, showing that quick decisions were more important than painstaking attention to appearances. There were also more dramatic examples, like making nearly every major decision on the spot himself rather than waiting for consensus.

Perhaps the most telling moment came when Henderson was handed a 300-page binder of backup information as part of his preparation for testifying before the U.S. Congress. The next day, he asked his chief of staff to tell the research team to stop. “It must have taken 20 people a month to produce this report. And I’ll never use it. I’d rather have incomplete information [than this unnecessary work].”

• Clarify the specific implications of the new behavior. The new CEO of a large financial-services institution announced one of his highest priorities: a new approach to managing the trade-offs on uncertain deals, which he called taking measured risks. Although he talked about it constantly, and employees understood its importance, many people still needed more guidance. “I work in legal,” someone might say, “and I’m not sure what this means to me. Am I supposed to be taking more risks, or am I supposed to help others by pulling on the reins when they go too far?” The answer might well have been “a bit of both,” but it needed to be spelled out.

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  1. Joel Cooper, Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory (Sage, 2007): Solid introduction to Leon Festinger’s grand idea and its relevance to today’s conflicts.
  2. Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the (In)Formal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results (Jossey-Bass, 2010): Integrating formal and informal measures (with more on the Aetna story).
  3. Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, “Leading Outside the Lines,” s+b, Summer 2010: How StockPot, a division of Campbell’s Soup, used metrics to shift cultural behavior.
  4. Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems (Harvard Business Press, 2010): Changing behavior by championing people who get better results.
  5. Edgar H. Schein, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (rev. ed., Jossey-Bass, 2009): Realistic, masterful handbook for diagnosing your culture and raising its tacit assumptions to the surface.
  6. The Katzenbach Center website: Ongoing source of research and insight on culture change theories and methods.
  7. For more thought leadership on this topic, visit s+b’s website at: