Redefining Culture Alignment - Why It Fails

Putting the cart before the horse

The change management industry has long defined culture alignment as aligning your culture with your mission, strategy and goals (MSGs).

The change management industry has long defined culture alignment as aligning your culture with your mission, strategy and goals (MSGs).

That is immensely important. But we’re doing corporate America (and the rest of the world) a destructive and costly disservice because that laser focus on business processes as the root of change has led to a shameful 70% failure rate.

The reason is because the viewpoint is incomplete and, while well-meaning, relies on an out-dated model of human behavior that assumes people will do what we tell them to do because ‘we are the leaders of this company’ and if we just properly align sticks and carrots we can lead them to water.

Focusing on the MSGs attempts to change behaviors by changing people via the environment rather than actually changing the culture.

No matter where you sit in the nature/nurture debate most, as well as mountains of psychological research, would agree that after your third, fourth of fifth decade on the planet you are pretty well set in who you are.

There is (almost) nothing I can tell you that will change your behavior for the long-term.

No workshop, no team building exercise and no turbo-charged, uber-dynamic silver bullet will change your culture. Culture change is a process that isn’t accomplished at an executive off-site or over a six-month consulting engagement.

It’s hard and takes dedication.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that making some tweaks to the existing process by incorporating other disciplines, such as psychology and organizational design, ahead of the work around MSGs can significantly increase your odds of success.

It is an on-going process that isn’t ‘solved’ in time for your next quarterly business review. But, rather, it should be a component of every one.

Culture change occurs when a company undertakes the long process of understanding who they are and making systemic efforts to bring in people who fit the desired culture, manage out those who do not and consistently reward the desired values.

The process must start by understanding what drives your incumbent employees today. This upfront research allows you to understand the reasons change may stall, how quickly you can push certain changes in the culture and where the sub-cultures are that already embody the desired change.

  1. Understand the values of your incumbent employees
  2. If that’s not what you want, tweak a couple but DO NOT throw out everything (any change is hard, wholesale substitutions are almost impossible)
  3. Create processes around hiring, developing and rewarding those values
  4. Align the MSGs to ensure business process fits with how you desire work to get accomplished, what you want rewarded and how you want teams to interact
  5. Internally ‘brand’ your culture

Focusing on the MSGs is vital. But you can’t start on #4 just as you can’t stop after #2.

There is an art and a science to culture change. But no matter who you are or how great your ‘new’ MSGs, you are not going to be able to turn that block of clay into an impressionist oil painting. Employ some science to understand the medium with which you’re working.

Brent Daily

Brent Daily

Founder and COO of RoundPegg. Brent graduated from Stanford's Graduate School of Business and, at least prior to having two kids, could usually be found road biking through the Colorado mountains.

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