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Change: Culture Is More Important Than Process

04 September 2019

 “All improvement will require change, but not all change will result in improvement”

This is just as true now as it was when Gerald Langley wrote it in 1996 (2nd edition of “The Improvement Guide” is now available, published in 2009). From the best planned projects to vague ideas for improvement, to make a difference you have to change. And change isn’t easy. 

What Stops Change?

Fundamentally, people like what they know. If you’ve risen to the top in the current system (for example, a First Past The Post electoral system in the UK, or the electoral college in the USA), then you don’t want to risk creating a new system – you might not be at the top any more! If your process is safe right now, for example if you deliver health care a particular way, then you resist change – it presents a risk to the patient. If your company is divided into departments a particular way, and you know your neighbours and the way things work, you don’t want change because you might not like your new neighbours and you will have to re-learn how to bend the system to get what you want.

Fundamentally, it’s about culture. Culture is “the way we think”, “the way we do things” and “our shared values” all rolled into one. We don’t like to change the way we think, and as described in the previous chapter, we don’t like to change the way we do things.

There are all sorts of good and valid reasons to resist change. Safety (who can criticise that?), the cost of retraining, or the loss of productivity whilst we get up to speed. As the list of arguments expands, you start to recognise that underneath it all is a fear of the unknown, “will I still have a job tomorrow?” and “will I look a fool because I don’t understand?”

The IPA Experience

The UK Government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) is responsible for a portfolio of investment and change around £500 billion (half a trillion pounds). Adding on all the non-infrastructure projects like policing and healthcare, you could probably double this. But just sticking to the half a trillion – a 2% improvement in performance on this portfolio is £10billion. Making a 10% improvement would pay for a year’s worth of our total defence spending, or half of our education spending, or a third of health spending. So IPA is very keen on getting change right.

A Change Like Crossrail – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Crossrail is one of IPA’s projects. Creating a new railway like Crossrail has huge implications. The improvement in travel time means a whole lot of different people have a manageable commute to work in central London. But also a whole lot of businesses can set up in different locations along the route of Crossrail. Instead of having to have an office in London, they can visit their client in the course of a morning and be back in the office for the afternoon. Therefore a minimum amount of time lost to win new business.

So what are the negatives? Will it reduce house prices for people who aren’t on the route of Crossrail? Will higher house prices and business rents along the route drive out existing residents who are now served by the route? Will the people who feel threatened, find ways to stop the change? This can show up in many different ways. Opposing planning permission, direct action (protests), complaints (sometimes completely fabricated) to the media. Constantly arguing to change the specification.

What about the workers and the companies that deliver the project? If they finish the work, they all lose their jobs – what sort of incentive is that to complete quickly? So tight time boundaries slip a bit – a week extra now could mean a year extra employment or contract by the time we’ve inserted a few more extensions. Changing specifications to expand, or to undo work already done and redo it. Is there a solution, to enable the project to run on time and on budget, whilst still delivering the benefits?

Katzenbach’s View And The Critical Few

The Katzenbach Centre (part of PwC’s Strategy&) thinks that culture needs to be addressed directly, in order to deliver successful projects. Jon Katzenbach’s book “The Critical Few” distils down the approach into three areas:

  • Traits
  • Behaviours
  • Informal leaders

Initially, the book defines that “critical few” as a few leaders: people who will exemplify the traits (what connects them emotionally to what the organisation is trying to achieve) and behaviours (what people actually need to do, on a daily basis). It expands this group to include formal leaders (directors, senior management team, project delivery), and informal leaders (heads of profession, change managers, mentors, most experienced professionals).

But it needs to include the leaders in every team: not just at the top of the organisation, but out here on the front line where stuff happens for customers. Here’s where the good stuff either happens or doesn’t happen. But Katzenbach highlights the big challenge that faces every organisation: Measuring culture, and measuring progressive change in culture.

Measuring Culture

Change isn’t as simple as a Gantt chart. Project Managers may be one of the last professions to be replaced by computers, because change only happens by persuasion/ cajoling/ seduction. It’s easy enough to measure progress against a Gantt chart, or using Earned Value, but that tells us what has happened – it’s like looking into the rear view mirror.

“The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men / gang aft a-gley”

So Katzenbach at Strategy&, and Vickerstaff at IPA, highlight the importance of measuring culture. If we could measure culture, then we could tell if we’re likely to get the outcome we want. Rather earlier in the process than waiting to see what actually happened, and wringing hands.

Measuring Culture In A Change Project

Measuring culture isn’t easy. We can use personality-type measures to see what kinds of people we have in the team, but is that relevant to how well the business will perform? We can measure team types, but there’s no “right answer”. We probably get our best answers by measuring how the team and individuals align to organisation objectives. But this means that the best personality type, the best team culture, will vary by organisation and you also need a good mix within a team. Then again, this is broadly what most change practitioners (as opposed to academics) have found.

Measuring is further complicated. You can’t ask too many questions, otherwise people get fed up and start giving random answers which mess up the measurement, or spend all their time answering questionnaires instead of working (ultimately, the aim of measuring culture is to improve productivity, not destroy it)! Of course you also need to know what direction you need culture to grow towards, and you need to know what progress is ‘normal’, in order to decide whether you need to change the intervention or keep it as it is. And that’s a whole topic in itself.

Coming Back To Crossrail

There are going to be winners. But it’s the losers who often take action to prevent change, and the winners don’t understand they are going to win, or don’t want to be seen to promote change. Can you, the change practitioner, help the winners to understand what they have to gain? Can you encourage and support them to promote the project and progress? Can you harness these as activists? It’s all in the bucket of “culture”. Culture really does eat strategy for breakfast.

So What Do You Think?

There are a lot of questions asked in the above piece. What do you think? Do you have answers, or suggestions, or do you think I’ve missed out the most important questions? Let us know.


“The organisation” doesn’t exist – it’s made up of people. Change only happens when people embrace the change. The ‘benefits’ are the reasons why they will embrace it

04 September 2019

Oliver Randall

"People are the most important consideration in any change." (On Change) "We are focused on exploring the world of change and helping it develop. All our thoughts try to challenge the status quo and take Change to a clearer, faster initiative. We simplify change." (On TCC)