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Changing Organisational Culture Requires a Change in Leadership
By Kevin Dwyer

Editor's Note: Here's a viewpoint on changing organizational culture and the role that organizational leaders must play in visioning and implementing change in the way things are done, and organizational values and beliefs.

Changing culture or "the way we do things around here" need not be as difficult as it first seems. We often make it more difficult for ourselves because the first and most important change often needs to come from us as leaders.

We can make it doubly difficult if we build a project around a focus of changing culture. It can appear that we are changing culture for changing sake. We can also get lost in the forest of consultant jargon, models and methods and miss the trees of the objective we are attempting to reach.

To adequately discuss what changing culture is, we need to start with a definition of what organisational culture is. A useful tool for this amongst the plethora of tools available is the Cultural Web developed by Johnson and Scholes.

In the Cultural Web, culture is described as the mix of routines and rituals, stories, symbols, control systems, power structures and organisational structure that form the paradigm of the organisation.

The routines are the ways that members of the organisation behave towards each other and that link different parts of the organisation. These are the "way we do things around here". There are also rituals of organisational life, such as training programmes, promotion and assessment which point to what is most important in the organisation.

The stories told by members of the organisation embed the present in its organisational history and flag important events and personalities. Other symbolic aspects of organisations such as logos, offices, cars and titles or the type of language and terminology commonly used become a short-hand representation of the nature of the organisation.

The control systems, measurements and reward systems emphasise what is important in the organisation focusing attention and activity.

Power structures, the most powerful managerial groupings in the organisation, are the ones most associated with core assumptions and beliefs about what is important. The formal organisational structure, or the more informal ways in which the organisation works, reflect power structures and delineate important relationships

The paradigm is the set of assumptions, held in common and taken for granted in an organisation, which lies within the cultural web which bonds these assumptions to the day to day action of organisational life.

There are two ways of attacking the issues that make up the culture of an organisation. In both cases a "current state" view is necessary to understand where we are now. In both cases we must also understand the future state of our desired culture.

In one method we will build a cultural transformation programme to deliver cultural change as its own outcome. This rarely works. The smart people will change their habits when the people who "care" about culture (the bosses?) are looking and will know all the right things to say. However their behaviour rarely changes.

In the other method, we will build a case for change in the business to achieve a business outcome. We will drive relentlessly to the outcome and we will monitor the supporting culture, making fine tuned adjustments to what we say and how we say it, what we do and how we do it, based on our knowledge of the culture. Organisational culture will be a result of what we do, not what we do being a result of an attempt to change current culture.

The second method is nearly always successful, in my experience. It does however require clarity of thought and discipline from the leader. The recipe for success is simple.

Be clear about the objectives of the organisation. Communicate those objectives early and often. Communicate by different mediums and different techniques. Remember some people a visual, some are auditory and some prefer text. Communicate using the recipient's language unless you are trying to change the language used.

Concentrate on those things which get in the way of reaching the objective with urgency. If the objective is important and they get in the way, why would we not attack them? This would be only if the objectives were not really important. This may include people, recognising that some people do not fit in terms of competence or desired culture. Recruit to fit the new culture requirements of behaviours and beliefs.

Only ever talk about opportunities, not problems. It may seem trite, but problems engender negativity, opportunities engender a positive mind set.

Concentrate on developing new stories, eliminating routines and changing power structures and control systems as a means to reach the objective, not vice-versa. Tell people they have succeeded. Nothing reinforces appropriate behaviour like praise.

Changing culture is not so difficult. Culture usually only raises its head as topic when results are not what we want and we provide leadership that allows an unsuitable culture to develop. By all means use some tools to help understand and monitor culture, but we must provide a change in leadership to change culture.

Kevin Dwyer is Director of Change Factory a change management and business improvement company located in Australia and the Fiji Islands. To see more articles visit

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