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LTT Business Bulletin






Mel Tunbridge, Principal at Agile People Partners, asks the

question “Cultural Transformation – silver bullet or lead balloon?”


Why do conversations about an important topic like culture typically go nowhere? How many thousands of dollars have been wasted on “cultural change efforts” which very seldom work?

Here is one of the big problems: First, virtually no one clearly defines what they mean by “culture” or if they do they don’t define the goal of the project. Culture can be defined as “the pervasive values, beliefs and attitudes that characterise a company and guide its practices”. Therefore the goal should start with “purposefully & actively building capability for new ways of working.” A culture project needs to be run just as that……..a project, with the same discipline any other project within your organisation has.

So many organisations that I am in contact with talk to me about cultural transformation. But when probed on the topic there is very little detail they can articulate about what they need differently and what is and isn’t working now. It’s as though a brochure on cultural transformation has done the rounds & they feel they need to get on the bus and quick – surely it’s going to fix all what ails me & my organisation. The cultural grass, it seems, is always greener.

What might be possible if we stopped trying to transform organisational cultures, and instead, started leveraging them? Clients often tell me, “We need to transform our culture.” Some want to be more innovative, while others want to be more consistent. Most want there to be more accountability & collaboration. They’re convinced that a comprehensive overhaul of the culture is the only way to overcome the company’s resistance to major change. Culture thus loses its ability to be an accelerator and an enabler.

If the current culture isn’t getting the organisation where it needs to go, intervention might be necessary, but transformation? Really? Could we not concentrate on figuring out how to optimise the existing culture’s best attributes. What if we looked to implement, and systematise new behaviours that fit well with the existing culture rather than focus on stopping old practices and starting new ones.

No such thing as a perfect culture

Constant changes in the marketplace, customer needs and technology at a minimum all point to the need to develop an adaptive culture that can effectively carry your organisation through most situations. Yet it’s important to understand that culture is unique to each organisation. While doing things a certain way can be very positive for one company, trying to impose the same culture on another organisation can be devastating. This is a reason why some leaders thrive and others fail miserably if their styles are contradictory to the environment.

If you look hard enough, most organisations will find they already have pockets of people who practice the behaviours they desire. It’s possible to draw on these positive aspects of your culture, turning them to your advantage, and offset some of the negative aspects as you go. This approach makes change far quicker and easier to implement. Leaders should focus on the areas of overlap between the current and preferred cultures in order for culture change to feel like evolution instead of revolution. This will make the necessary changes less scary and decrease resistance.

When culture change is necessary, discover your strengths

Clearly, cultural change — and even transformation — is sometimes necessary. If an organisation isn’t getting the results it needs, it’s likely that it needs to look at the management, leaders & strategy. But it’s far too superficial — and ineffective — to take a deficit-based approach to culture change, pointing out all the flaws. It’s much more powerful to assess the culture’s strengths and, exploit them.

Most people will shift their thinking only after new behaviours have led to results that matter—and thereby been validated.

Of course, culture change is not a short-term process — it will take years of consistent and persistent effort. An organisation doesn’t become a more collaborative culture, for example, just because you announce “we have a collaborative culture” or when they stick a few teams of people together.

Rather than dismissing culture work as “soft stuff,” it needs to move to a high-priority, but let’s not fool ourselves, we’re changing whole beliefs systems & it may not be the silver bullet to all what ails us – its only part of the solution.

Culture change checklist:

Strategic vision – have a clearly and widely articulated view of the direction and purpose of the proposed change that includes measurable and achievable goals.

Symbolic leadership – senior executives must behave in ways that are consistent with the new culture – always!

Management commitment – senior management must be committed to change and must be seen to be committed.

Communication – involve people and be honest and transparent.

Reinforce change – take every opportunity to convey the message.


Mel Tunbridge is the Principal at Agile People Partners, a niche HR consulatancy based in Sydney. You can contact Mel at mel.tunbridge@agilepeoplepartners.com.au