Culture Change Is a Leap Into the Unknown

There’s nothing more “in” than “corporate DNA”. Which only goes to show that people are ready to buy any old metaphor wholesale. It’s as though before having been “birthed”, corporate culture had already begun to develop in the genes of those who “conceived” it.

But this is only partially true and it’s partially worrisome. It’s true because corporate culture is an enduring incarnation of the personality, convictions, values and behaviors of the initial founders. It’s worrisome because—too bad for the metaphor—it takes between 150,000 and 450,000 years for DNA to change in any significant way.

So much for agility and on-going change!

But the power of “code” and “algorithm” today are such that tomorrow’s digital world truly does require radical change. Their power is such that this new world will  “reconfigure” almost all societal norms and companies will be affected right along with the rest.

The “pure-players“, or companies born in the digital world and for the digital world, develop and disappear as fast as the messages they communicate. The “old ones” from the “old world”—the large groups or mid-sized companies—are shaken at their core as they try to find the right rhythm for themselves. It’s hard, for a number of reasons.

  • They must adapt technically in order to absorb technologies that are continuously redesigning their business. This is not a simple proposition.
  • They must adapt politically, because digitalization is upsetting the traditional balance of power in families, companies and societies overall. This is a delicate proposition.
  • They must adapt culturally because the digital world is spawning new values, beliefs and convictions and creating an unknown world and actually formatting younger generations.

The challenge is enormous.

These traditional companies must take this change on board and evolve and adapt as rapidly as possible for the digital world eliminates stragglers and is producing new start-ups every day that will end up by destroying, sector by sector, the very industries from which they have emerged.


Successful culture change

Thanks to the many change projects we have accompanied, ICM has identified four key steps to keep in mind for a culture change program. They address the cultural backbone of an organization: underlying values; behaviors; communication; organizational possibilities.

Revive the beliefs and convictions that are at the core of the corporate culture.

That’s what everyone is talking about when they talk about the DNA and it has its good and bad sides for what is required today. The convictions, beliefs or values, which are often unconscious, have structured the business model, decisions, strategies, organizational structure, as well as relationships between people, choices and internal public debate. Listen:  “You only win if you’re fast” says one company. “Technological excellence at the core” says another. “Internal competition to identify best talent” says a third. “The buck stops with the client” says a franchise owner. All these catch-phrases that are trotted out without much thought to what lies behind them but nonetheless they have a powerful impact on the organization’s heart and they regulate its culture.

A corporate culture is generally based on a limited number of convictions

If we really examine organizational convictions, we’ll discover that each company only has a few. These are solidly rooted in the collective unconscious. They provide the keys to corporate success and to understanding why it is suffering as it faces change. They clarify why it is so difficult (and sometimes so painful) for the organization to reinvent itself through a transformation process.

Fortunately it’s not just about digging up these convictions.


Find ways to articulate the convictions at the core of the corporate culture

That’s a a complicated archaeological challenge because they somehow have to be extracted from the managerial bla-bla that is rampant everywhere and that has buried them.

Here’s an example. A company traditionally sought to ensure sustainability with their client relationships by basing these on what they called a “strong dose of intimacy”. At one time a key to their success, this began looking more like “indulgence” as today’s highly regulated world shifted the discourse of acceptability. So, in order to avoid ethical problems and slurs to reputation, the organization has to find ways to continue maintaining client relationships but with a “reasonable distance.” Unless this shift can be clearly articulated, there will be no way to act on this change or change mind-sets.


Develop new convictions

This requires going outside. Listen to the outside world. Listen to what’s going on in the societies where the next generation of employees is now growing up. What’s the market saying? And consumers? What are the words that might define a new response and set of actions?

Listen to the employees who have just joined and to those who have just left. Listen to clients who buy your products and services and those who no longer do so. Develop a simple and radical formulation of what a new culture can, under the best of circumstances, build on. And communicate this!


Open up space for new initiatives

Do you wish you were a start-up? Then open up space where that energy can emerge and develop with people who have the desire to take those risks. This is not about “projects”, which are usually identified by a superstructure that is enmeshed in its own set of traditions. Open up space where small groups or teams can take ownership and freely embody a new set of convictions through new ideas and ways of working that are out of sync and different and upsetting.

You’ll have to accept that some initiatives will fail. So do most start-ups. But the energy and success of winning initiatives will more than compensate for resources lost in failure. Use the incredible resources of a large multinational to then develop the successful initiatives that are often stifled for internal political reasons.

Organizational change is slow. But it doesn’t take much time to multiply the number of on-the-ground initiatives. The rest will follow.

Since the very beginning of ICM our mission has been to accompany organizations and groups on this journey. This has always been our passion and continues to drive the innovative methodologies that we develop for our clients and for which they respond with on-going trust.






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