The Challenge of Changing and Developing Corporate Culture

The classic summary of ‘the way we do things around here’ is not always enough for us to challenge and change corporate culture.

Culture is Everything

Clients regularly talk about ‘…changing culture in the organisation’ as one of the key outcomes of a project. 

Behind this deceptively simple statement is a myriad of guides, surveys, benchmarks, information, books, and advice on the topic. Try an internet search and it’s likely that there will be some 50 million hits.  In particular, informed and experienced researchers, authors and writers such as Ed Schein, Gert Hofstede, Peter Woolliams and Fons Trompenaars offer various views on changing culture. So against this background there is little doubt that this is a significant topic. And therein lies the challenge…just where do we start?

Where do we start?

A typical working definition of culture is shared values, beliefs, written and unwritten rules and behaviours:  the classic summary of ‘…the way we do things around here’.

However, this generalised approach may not be sufficient as often there are various types of sub-cultures in an organisation – and a real need for these smaller ‘cultural units’ for an organisation to function. The approach by Dr Sian Watt (Insert 1 below) highlights four different cultures: Village Market; Project; Club and Bureaucracy or Role cultures.

Insert 1: Four Types of Organisational Cultures and the Focus for Each

The model developed by Dr Watt has similarities with the Competing Values Framework of Cameron and Quinn (Insert 2 and see also this video explanation).

But Dr Watt goes further and highlights the positives and the negatives of each cultural style.

Insert 2: Cameron & Quin: Competing Values Framework of Organisational Culture
Source & acknowledgement for illustration

Defining culture by departmental focus

A recent project with a client, although centred on manufacturing systems also required a focus on changing culture throughout the whole business. This company was a key supplier of safety-critical components to the petrochemical and defence industries. Therefore, the daily activities were driven by safety in product design and quality systems.

A further challenge was driven by the usual ‘silo’ behaviours, compounded by the significant physical size of the business and location of offices and production areas.

In gaining an understanding current and future culture, and therefore the change or development of behaviours, a series of cross-department workshops were undertaken. The culture assessment started with an adaption of Dr Sian Watts model. Some refinement as made by the teams and ‘Compliance’ culture and action was substituted for Bureaucracy. While ‘Village Market’ became Pioneer and Entrepreneur.

Insert 3: Defining and agreeing current and future cultures.

‘Honest Review’ stage: positioning of culture and actions?

The departmental teams then positioned themselves in the culture quadrant that best described the daily routines, behaviours and actions for the business and, importantly, for the clients.

However, this raised some challenges for the Project based teams and Pioneer teams. The ‘Honest Review’ from both groups clearly indicated that the respective cultures were not driven by authentic project methods and behaviours nor by real pioneering actions. For example, the Contract Delivery Team either did not use, or stringently abide by, standard project management methods such as Critical Path Analysis, Gantt charts, Project Definition or Project Charters. Furthermore, and like the Competing Values Framework, the ‘Honest review’ highlighted potential dilemmas between the required behaviours and activities of the different cultures from the departments. The safety critical, quality culture of Compliance as often challenged by slippage in lead times created by sales and procurement.

Culture change and development

Fourteen months on from the initial workshops the MD of the company acknowledges the reality and truth in super tanker analogy of changing culture. ‘….it takes miles and ages to alter course’.

The company is using a ‘Culture Coach’, working with all departments, in developing the individual cultures. Starting with the customer in mind and agreed behaviours, standards and regular feedback checks ‘what should we be doing for our culture?’

Alongside this is managing the potential, or actual, dilemmas between cultures so that departments avoid the ‘either’ – ‘or’ outcomes and develop ‘and’ results. For example, in new product development (Pioneer culture) the time-to-market for a product is a key competitive factor. But in a safety critical market this could conflict with (Compliance culture) of quality assurance and control. So potential new product risks are managed now by stringent new computer modelling methods together with techniques such as Design Failure Mode (Effect and Analysis) and Design for Manufacture & Assembly assessments.

Summary: ‘changing culture’

This article can be only the briefest of insights into this significant topic. Easy to say, not easy to lead or manage.

But as a minimum setting out in changing culture requires :

‘Why’ are we doing this? And unpicking the deeply held beliefs, values and behaviours.

‘Where’ are we starting from and heading towards?  Assessing what the cultural behaviours and norms are now and what we want them to be. ‘How’ do we change and develop culture? The process, over time, by which change and development is nurtured will be guided by the needs or individual organisations. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all approach here!


LInkedIn Profile for Dr John Coleman at Aedifice Projects Canterbury, UK

Article on this Blog: What is Leadership Culture?

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