This is the first in a two part series examining leadership and cultural change by Sharon Turnbull (Cycle Director IMPM)
Why is it so important for leaders to focus on leading cultural change proactively and carefully? Why is it so difficult to merge two sub-cultures into a cohesive and coherent whole?
There are numerous research studies to indicate that the most common reason why organisational mergers so often fail is lack of attention by the top leaders to the cultural dynamics involved in this change. Once the operational plans are put into place and rolled out, it is thereafter so often assumed that the people and the culture will follow, and the old cultures will blend together with little effort or attention.
Our experience running the International Masters Program for Managers(IMPM) now in its 21st year, has shown that this is not the case, and that culture needs to be managed and led with as much attention as is given by leaders to finance, strategy and the operation itself. This is why we introduce the Cultural Web (from Exploring Corporate Strategy by Johnson and Scholes) during the very first module of the IMPM.
All people do not react to change in the same way. How they feel is not necessarily how they behave. This is not surprising, of course, but what is surprising is how few of the prescriptions for change take this issue seriously. Without an understanding of the responses of people in the organisation – what triggers them, why they change over time, and the social dynamics of their responses to change – how can leaders hope to lead them effectively? Most organisations put all their investment into the front end of their change programme, and put little effort into attending to the complex dynamics of supporting people in adjusting to cultural change. When a change programme has been launched and is underway, many leaders breathe a sigh of relief and take their eyes off the ball. But this is exactly the time when they need to be most alert to what is happening on the ground. How are people really responding? What level of buy-in do they have? What could now threaten the programme’s success?
As cultural change progresses, a range of different behaviour patterns are likely to emerge. Many of these, however, will not be visible on the surface. It is important for leaders to understand what these responses are, why these differences occur, and how these are distributed across the organisation if they are going to be able to respond appropriately. Employee questionnaires may be useful as a gauge, but they are not likely to give a detailed picture to help leaders to act. How then to gauge the ‘real’ feelings out there?
The common cultural challenges that leaders need to consider.
Most leaders dramatically underestimate the time it takes to shift organisational culture, particularly where two very different cultures are suddenly asked to merge. Organisational cultures are resistant to change for numerous reasons. The legacy of their history and technologies, not to mention the stories, heroes and symbols of the past mean that programmes premised upon the notion that the past can be erased inevitably fail. An organisation’s history cannot be erased. A good change programme will acknowledge this, and build upon it. Kotter and Heskett’s research found that for cultural transition to occur at a deep level, a leader should accept that it could take as long as 10-15 years. But how many leaders have the luxury of thinking that far ahead in our fast moving, turbulent, digitised, global world? Very few. The result is that leaders embarking on a cultural change process often start with structural re-organisation to symbolise their intent, but as soon as cultural resistance looms, they lose heart and give up before the cultural change has gathered its own momentum.
In the next blog post we will review the final 6 reasons that leaders need to focus on cultural change.