Contrary to popular belief, organization culture can be changed, if only leaders put their minds to it. Some executives try to sidestep culture by arguing that the culture in their organizations can’t be changed. It is what it is. It's always been that way. This is short-sighted thinking. Culture is difficult to change but not impossible. Leaders have to show the way by challenging current values, basic assumptions, beliefs, expected behaviors, and norms.
Some executives try to sidestep culture by arguing that strategy is more important. This is a nonsensical argument. Derek Irvine talks about this in his blog post, “3 Lessons for Successful Company Culture Change”. You need both culture and strategy (in addition to resources, people, and the right external environment). Strategy is where you’re going and culture is how you’re going to get there.
Leaders need to be willing and able to change culture. Robert Sternberg makes this point in a post he wrote about the difficulty universities have in going in a new direction. I think Sternberg’s concerns apply to all organizations. He writes:
Change is not always for the better, of course. But a college or university that is static will inevitably fall behind more dynamic, positively changing institutions. And like any institution that fails to compete, it is on the path to stagnation or death. A dynamic institution will change and, if the change proves to be in the wrong direction, will redirect itself until it finds a sustainable path…Institutions can change — for the better — if they are able to change, believe they can change, want to change, are willing to appear to change, and have the courage actually to change.
A story about Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor Company, demonstrates how a leader who is willing and able can bring about intentional culture change, even in a large, old, manufacturing company. This story is recounted by Bryce G. Hoffman in his new book titled, American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. When Mullaly arrived at Ford in 2006 there was an “ego-driven and backbiting culture among executives.” Mulally set out to change that culture and make it one in which honesty and openness were valued. A review of the book by Nancy F. Koehn describes the events this way:
Mark Fields, head of the Americas business, tested the new chief. Mr. Fields wondered: Did Mr. Mulally really want business plan review meetings to be forums where problems as well as achievements were discussed? If so, then the gatherings ran counter to Ford’s culture, in which formal meetings were “political theater,” according to Mr. Hoffman, and side discussions were “where deals were cut and truths too painful to put in a PowerPoint presentation were shared.”
Mr. Fields told colleagues in a business plan review meeting that he was delaying a product introduction. (The vehicle had a possible problem: a test diver had noticed a grinding noise coming from the suspension.) Mr. Fields and some others around the table thought that he might be fired, the book says. Instead, Mr. Mulally started clapping, praising Mr. Fields’s willingness to report the delay. Two weeks later, other executives’ PowerPoint slides were filled with examples of specific problems in their departments.
If an old-line manufacturing behemoth like the Ford Motor Company can change its culture, any organization can change. It takes the will and ability of leadership to confront fundamental values, beliefs, and behaviors that are assumed to be carved in stone but, starting at the top, can be rewritten to align with a strategy for success.