Is the fundamental idea behind culture change flawed?

Apparently two thirds of change management programmes fail.

The broad steps of any change management programme are:

  1. Change people’s perception of the need for change. We now need to be more creative because our competition is kicking out backsides and we may all lose out livelihoods…
  2. Change leadership to showcase the newly desired behaviour. See, senior management you’re your popular colleagues) are doing it…
  3. Change the rewards mechanisms (formal and informal) to reinforce the change. You get gold stars, coffee privileges and the key to the executive bathroom…
  4. Change the skills and resources available so people can continue the new behaviours. Here are creativity training programmes you can (must?) enrol in…

At the core, we are talking about changing people – often lots of change, and often within a well entrenched system.

An organisation’s culture will naturally evolve and settle down to a pattern made up of paths of least resistance. That is the human way.

We see it in the spontaneous development of pathways across a new city park. The established official pathways are only used if they suited people. And new unofficial shortcut path will appear naturally over time. There is great inherent inertia in such a system.

To force a culture to change overnight, you can bring in the guns and cannons (sometimes literally – as in a war for example!) You can replace everyone who does not fit the new culture (or wait for the organic attrition of the misfits.) Both steps engender a lot of trauma and angst – generally not good for morale.

To take a leaf from EQ in personal relationships – it is just about impossible to change someone. Hence the wisdom of never marrying someone to change them. I don’t like to be changed, and I don’t like changing other people. Surely it is always an up-hill battle?

So what happens when we truly accept the human factors at hand? That people are hard to align to one vision, that people will seek the path of least resistance, that people dislike change.

Real and lasting change comes only from within individuals. I can change myself. I can be the change. The payoff from the change must be personally significant enough to overcome the entrenched inertia. Encourage (and expect) individuals to buy into their own personalised versions of the desired change. Find and enable the people who are already changing or want to change in the desired direction. Find the organically evolved shortcuts, the new informal paths, and nurture them.

This fuzzy, organic evolution is very different from any regimented “change management”. And the final change will likely be nowhere like what was envisioned. Is this too scary to contemplate?