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6 pitfalls of cultural change

Updated: Nov 10, 2023


By Lars Sudmann and Debbie Baute

Picture by Nick Fewing @Unsplash.


Globalisation. Digitalisation. Complexity. Cost Pressure.

Almost all organisations face these challenges and need to adapt accordingly. Companies want to become more innovative, more agile, more-high-performing. So then it’s agreed: the culture must change!

And here often the problems start: We see re-occuring patterns on why culture change initiatives fail. Here are six enemies of culture change, or to put it alternatively: a recommended surefire way to screw up a any effort to change your company’s culture:

1) Too fast: wanting it all done in three months

One of the most common mistakes is to assume that the implementation of a new culture is fast and easy. We have worked with managers who treated culture change like the implementation of a new system: now that we have defined it, let’s execute… and they are disappointed if the culture is not yet fully developed after three months. As everybody who has ever wanted to quit smoking or learned how to speak in public knows: behavioral change is not that straightforward. It takes time and needs continuous attention.

It helps to focus on the positives and welcome and encourage small changes in the right direction.

2) Too aspirational: “be like Google”

Another pitfall is being too aspirational. The 200-year-old manufacturing organization that wants to “be like Google” might be stretching it too much, since the two cultures are too far apart. This has nothing to do with thinking too small, we are all for ambitious targets. However, changing a culture is like changing the identity of the organization; this takes more time and a different type of effort than introducing a new product, for instance.

We recommend being realistic about the current culture and shoot for incremental change. Organisations just don’t change fast.

3) Too disconnected: change is pursued outside the circle of influence

Sometimes an organisational entity (team, department, division,…), especially within a large organisation, wants to move too far out, in the sense of “we want to be the best R&D division”… and they forget that they are part of and embedded in a larger organisation.

While it is absolutely legitimate to set up a division-specific approach, we recommend being realistic about what lies in your circle of influence and what not. For instance, promotion and recruiting policies most likely are harmonized corporate-wide. In these instances, you cannot have separate promotion procedures to reward your high performers within the department, so you will have to find different ways to motivate them.

4) Too superficial: change is wanted but is not embedded in the organization

Many culture initiatives require individuals all organisational levels to behave differently. The new culture needs to be embedded in ALL the procedures: shooting for a new leadership culture and only setting up leadership trainings won’t cut it: you need to make sure the promotion procedures, the feedback processes, the hiring set-up are all aligned. Additionally, often change is initiated but the tools are not provided.

It is essential for people to know where they are headed, but it is at least equally crucial to provide the “how” and build skills for both employees and leaders. Also, continuous follow up is needed to prevent a relapse into old behaviors.

5) Too late: culture change is initiated only after structural change was already put in place

We often see that culture change is wanted after an important structural change has taken place. For instance, the sale of a part of the business calls for that division to become self-sufficient. All of a sudden, they need to become independent and set up their own structures for HR, legal support etc. Often this also requires a change in the mindset of the employees, rather than being part of a large corporation, they need to act like entrepreneurs, take decisions at a much lower hierarchic level, and make sure they have the right expertise themselves.

Often we see that “cultural change” is on the agenda, but only AFTER the structural changes have taken place. This is a missed opportunity. Structural and cultural change should go hand in hand.

6) Too much: culture change is just one thing on a full plate and the effort is underestimated

Even if everybody agrees that culture change is necessary and relevant it is still a big question whether also the resources are being freed to properly implement the recommended steps. Too often we hear a unanimous agreement in a meeting (“Yes, let’s go for it!”). And then the change effort is added as work plan item #20 to somebody’s action plan. And slowly but surely the change effort dies and people say: “Change doesn’t work”.

The way out

As the famous adage goes: culture eats strategy for breakfast. But for sure 1) time and 2) focus should be invited to the breakfast table as well, otherwise your culture change efforts will fall flat. Every successful culture change we supported and analysed had a deep focus at heart: committed and realistic leaders and an organisation that was full part of the journey.

Invest your thinking, time and resources into getting these ahead if you want to move forward. A good starting point for every leader is to reflect on Tom Peters words: “Change With TWELVE Words: What do you think? How can I help? What have you learned?”

All the best for your change efforts.

Lars Sudmann is the former CFO of Procter & Gamble Belgium and a lecturer on high-performance leadership in global corporations. You can contact Lars to work with you as change advisor, executive coach, or keynote speaker & workshop facilitator for your next event. This article originally appeared on his blog: www.lars-sudmann.com, where you can also watch his TEDx talks.

Debbie Baute has a background in scientific and HR leadership roles in multinational companies, including IMEC and Procter & Gamble. She is a certified coach and trainer and is focusing her work on cultural transformation, leadership development and coaching for high-performance. For more information go to www.debbiebaute.com


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