By Phil Wilson, CHRP, SHRP
Taking the Pain out of
The average organizational culture change takes five to
seven years to complete.
I was not surprised when I heard that fact recently
at Dr. David Weiss’ presentation, Accelerating Culture
Change, at HRPA’s 2014 Annual Conference in Toronto, as I
have led culture change initiatives a number of times during my
We have seen five incarnations of the Apple iPhone in that
amount of time. How can a company develop and bring to mar-ket
multiple generations of product in less time than it takes to
turn its culture around?
According to Weiss, CEO of Weiss International Ltd., an HR
consultancy specializing in strategy, innovation and leadership,
and the author of six books, including Leadership-Driven HR,
the main reason is anxiety. Culture, he says, develops to create
group stability, and challenges to basic cultural assumptions re-leases
anxiety and defense mechanisms to preserve the culture.
That’s basically the idea behind Peter Drucker’s famous line,
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The pronouncement of a
new strategy involving culture change is quickly overwhelmed by
the group’s desire to avoid anxiety and instability.
EASING THE CHANGE
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Done right, an effective culture
change reinforces a little of the old, introduces a few new elements
– and is modeled and championed whole-heartedly by senior
First off, you don’t change culture for culture’s sake – there has
to be a compelling reason. You need to pinpoint what the organi-zation
requires from its culture in order to achieve the business
outcomes you want.
“You want to take a laser beam approach to culture change,”
said Weiss. “Many people err in thinking that when you change
culture, you need to change the ENTIRE culture. The preferred
approach is to reinforce two or three aspects of your current
culture that are consistent with what is needed to deliver the
business strategy, and modify two or three aspects of the cur-rent
culture that are inconsistent with what is needed to deliver
the business strategy. The laser beam approach targets these el-ements
to reinforce and modify, thereby both validating and
adjusting the group’s perception of what’s really important for
the new strategy.”
DONE RIGHT, AN EFFECTIVE
CULTURE CHANGE REINFORCES A
LITTLE OF THE OLD, INTRODUCES
A FEW NEW ELEMENTS – AND
IS MODELED AND CHAMPIONED
By celebrating elements from your current culture you want
to retain and reinforce, you’re actually reducing anxiety and
And for the targeted elements you want to modify, it’s im-portant
to emphasize that you’re not modifying them because
they’re bad, you’re doing it because they are inconsistent in whole
or in part with the organization’s new direction.
A culture change initiative that I was responsible for focused
on a values-based approach in changing culture over a three- to
five-year period. It resulted in inculcating four values: team-work,
trust, integrity and accountability. The role of the human
resources team was critical as almost all the employee touch
points from hiring to retirement are utilized through its process-es
and tools. For example, hiring competencies needed to reflect
the new values, and performance measures needed to be aligned
with the new culture that was being driven by the senior man-agement
The trick to culture change is to avoid scaring your people.
Nobody likes big change, so we pick a few areas to focus on that
give us the greatest leverage by reinforcing a couple of things and
modifying a few others.
And then, of course, you need your executive to model the
change. Once people see that, they start believing the change is
real – and that’s a highly leveragable culture change visual and
helps people adopt a different way of working. ■
Phil Wilson, CHRP, SHRP is chair of the Human Resources
Professionals Association (HRPA).
8 ❚ MARCH/APRIL 2014 ❚ HR PROFESSIONAL