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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


Stop Blaming Your Culture

Similarly, in the midst of any cost reduction exercise, people need guidance about new behaviors. How will they monitor expenses from now on? How should they call attention to wasteful activities that they do not control? If a utility shifts from being a government-owned enterprise to a privately held company, the culture may need to become more focused on customer service. What kinds of things could people do differently? What kinds of regular reminders can be put in place to reinforce key behaviors? Which aspects of subscriber outreach matter most?

Culture Consciousness in Times of Change

Every corporate culture has behaviors that will help you enable the change you want and others that will hinder it. As you become skilled at picking the enablers out and developing them, this kind of adaptability will become part of your own distinctive corporate identity. This is critical to the lasting success of peak-performing enterprises. Your culture can thus become a major factor supporting your strategy. Its overall strengths are one of your company’s intangible assets, and it should be factored into where you decide to compete, how you intend to win, and what operating model you work within.

As you continue to work with and within your culture, you will find it continually changes, keeping pace with the changes in the marketplace. Your operating model and the execution of your strategy will change accordingly. To be sure, deeply embedded cultures change slowly — far more slowly than the business environment. But some cultural elements can adapt more rapidly, particularly if you encourage your pride builders, culture carriers, and leading-edge thinkers to experiment with new ideas, such as digital media or new forms of customer service, and spread their experience through the networks that you have fostered.

Whatever happens in the outside world, however, keep your internal focus on the few critical behaviors that matter most — those that determine your strategic and operating performance. Find ways to measure both the behavior change itself, and the results it produces. Resist the temptation to attempt changes in the behaviors, attitudes, and values of the system all at once. Remember, it is much easier to act your way into new thinking than to think your way into new actions.

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Author Profiles:

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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:
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