Changing the Cultural Cement in Which Your Company Swims

Originally posted on

I was recently told by another smarty-pants consultant that, “As long as the team makes a logical proposal to the executives, they will support their recommendation.” My retort: “Then why do people smoke?” I mean, it’s not logical to smoke. There’s plenty of data to suggest it’s bad for your health. If logic alone were sufficient to change behavior we wouldn’t find ourselves staring at the hauntingly familiar “lessons not learned” at the end of every project. What keeps us locked into behaviors that don’t make sense, at least to other people?

I believe it’s our “culture.” Try as we might to change our own and other people’s behavior, “cultural cement” keeps us trapped in old, familiar, and accepted behaviors.

Country Culture and Company Culture

Many projects these days involve geographically dispersed teams, with members from a wide variety of country cultures. While there’s plenty of kibitzing about language barriers, decision-making style, and time zones challenges, the positive benefits of global teams continue to drive this trend.

I’ve witnessed this growing trend in my own work over the past five years with global Japanese companies. Yes, even Japan—known for a preference for all things Japanese—has reached beyond its border to embrace global diversity on a scale I’ve only seen elsewhere in my hometown, the San Francisco Bay Area, where over half of the population doesn’t speak English at home.

In May, for example, I worked with 42 people from 16 different countries who all work for a large Japanese bank, and last month I worked with 37 people from 12 different countries who work for a global manufacturer of high tech products that are used in over half of the computers on the planet. These were short projects—only a week long—but the latter included 7 teams presenting business breakthrough ideas to their CEO.

While the country culture and native languages of the people involved certainly impacted these experiences, it was the company culture that stood out in my mind as the key factor in how these groups performed. To my eyes, people from the same company who were born in places as diverse as the Czech Republic, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Germany, and the US had more in common with each other than Japanese people working for different companies. The bank banned me from doing exercises that required balloons and peacock feathers, although they did make an exception for my rubber chicken. (I guess banks are “bank-like” all over the world.) Meanwhile, the high tech company experience included tours of smelting facilities and showcases of high-temperature superconducting cables, and embraced all of the wackiness I could throw at them. Irrespective of the country cultural diversity, these companycultures couldn’t have been more different.

What is Culture?

If you study country culture you’ll inevitably stumble across something called “the iceberg model,” which is giving way to “the island model” represented in the picture below. As you can see, above the surface are the obvious characteristics considered “typical” of people from a particular country. While I gag at even the thought of such stereotype-reinforcing generalizations, I have to admit that there does seem to be some truth in them. Many of my Japanese colleagues do seem to be a bit more reserved in their business interactions than my American colleagues, and there certainly does seem to be a noticeable difference in the decision-making process between American and Japanese companies.


Figure 1. The Island Model of Culture.

The obvious traits we associate with “the norm” of a particular culture are those that an outsider can easily observe. Walk down a busy Tokyo street during lunchtime and you can’t help but notice that they’re a sea of dark suits, white shirts and dark ties. In the evening, you might wonder how such “shy and conservative” businessmen can keep so many karaoke joints in business. Only a peek below the surface could resolve this seeming contradiction. Below the water level you’ll find the unobservable influencers of behavior—factors an outsider would likely miss in a casual encounter. These are the values, beliefs, and norms driving the observable behaviors. As far as I can tell, these influential factors and their observable characteristics are what cross-cultural experts refer to as a country’s “culture.” Beneath all of the obvious and obscure differences lies the bedrock of shared human being-ness (except perhaps for sociopaths).

Taking one particular characteristic as an example, shown below, it’s interesting that a shared intent like “intending to get something done” can show up so differently both above and below the waterline. The big picture focus and task orientation typical of the US stands in contrast to the detail focus and group cohesion orientation of Japan. As I learned while gritting my teeth while observing a few cross-cultural workshops recently, standing on one island observing the other, each person usually judges the other’s actions in a negative light while ignoring underlying motivations and the shared intent. As you can imagine, this leads to all sorts of negativity and misunderstandings in multi-cultural teams.


Figure 2. Detailed Example of One Cultural Trait

What is Company Culture?

If we apply the island model to the business world, then company culture consists of the observable behaviors and underlying values, motivations, and norms typical of a particular company. It’s “the way we do things here” that newcomers are indoctrinated in—for better or worse—during their first weeks. It’s the collection of expectations and taboos that shape the behavior and communication of people operating in that culture. It’s the water we swim in, and the air we breathe: largely unnoticed, but ever-present. And, although there are plenty of business consultants claiming the expertise of cultural change—transformationeven—flout those norms and you’ll find that culture can be strong as cement, and tougher to alter than your spouse’s irritating lifelong habits.

I believe that culture is the main reason successive projects suffer similar problems, and post the same list of “lessons learned” at the end. Time after time we underestimate the schedule, rely on miracles to attain the finish date, and fall short of our hopes and dreams in spite of the heroics, because we were too busy to include the voice of the customer in our product development lifecycle. Next time will be different . . . we hope. But there is no hope, because it seems that the seeds of failure are sewn into the fabric of our culture.

Why Culture Matters More Than Strategy and Tactics

After the last paragraph, you might assume that I think company culture is just something we’re stuck with, and perhaps start polishing up your resume so you can find a place with a more attractive culture. Actually, that’s not a bad idea if you’re one of the 77% of people that a recent Gallup poll says “hate their jobs” and you perceive yourself as a helpless victim of external forces beyond your influence. But if you’re not yet ready to jump ship, and if you’re willing to take on the challenge of cultural change, there is hope (and a long list of business reasons) for doing so.

Culture impacts execution, so it should be high on the list of important issues for every project leader. Business outcomes such as revenue, profit, high quality, brand equity and customer delight are the result of what your people say and do, not the contents of some project plan or strategy document on a shared drive . . . somewhere . . . that the execs shared once or twice at an “all employees” meeting or attached to an email (that was probably not read anyhow). The culture of a corporate environment is far more ubiquitous and powerful than any ornate strategy, roadmap, or product development lifecycle that is only seen during occasional quarterly reviews (or maybe never), and that culture influences everything that is said and done. In the words of Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Transplanting Cultures

If you want to change culture there are highly INeffective ways to go about it. Here’s one. Imagine lopping off the top of an island (above the water level) from one company and plopping it down onto the base of another company. The observable behaviors and characteristics would have no meaningful connection to their underlying source. This would truly be a Frankenstein culture, and lead to all kinds of confusion for both the people in the system and those outside who must interact with this “island’s” people.

That’s essentially what some companies do when they try to copy best practices—behaviors above the waterline—from other companies. Or, put another way, grafting a unicorn’s head onto a scorpion is unlikely to produce a unicorn. Installing a Silicon Valley style cappuccino machine and foosball table in the cafeteria of a stodgy old firm won’t make people more innovative, and instituting “The Toyota Way” in a political shark tank won’t empower individuals to kaizen their jobs away. This is a mistake many companies make when they adopt “the next big thing.” Don’t go there!

Cultural Cement – Not Set in Stone!

Although resistance to cultural change is legendary, my own personal experience is that you can change culture. If you’re a project manager who wants to increase your chances of success, you SHOULD change it. But, whether you’re an individual contributor, a project manager, or a CEO, you do have influence on the culture via your behavior in the business. Just as one exasperating jerk can ruin the workday for dozens of people, you can use your own behavior and communication to create a pocket of excellence that will inevitably impact everyone who crosses your path. The first and most important step is answering the question, “Change to what?”

Making Culture Work for You

You could spend 20 years, as I have, reading a pile of books, digging through data, experimenting, and exploring what makes for an effective company culture that produces predictable and repeatable results without sucking people’s will to live. Or you could just implement the methods proven to work by years of statistically valid research. A good place to start is your own personal commitment to absolute integrity in everything you say and do, and a passion for enabling others to achieve their greatest potential through your work together.

Here’s what I’ve distilled out of lifetime of study, being obsessed with the idea that maybe earning a living didn’t have to make me wish I were dead! I’ve applied these concepts with vigor in my own work for the past 15 years, and I can personally recommend each and every one of these approaches as solid, viable, and relevant to most businesses. If you want to change company culture, change four key drivers of culture: the behaviors of Leaders, Managers, Individuals, and Teams. Here’s a guide to behavior in each area that I promise will transform your culture—if not the whole company, at least the part between your two ears.


Companies with strong “transformational leadership” practices outperform those with weak ones by a long shot, as shown below for a five-year period:

Strong Transformational
Leadership Practices
Weak Transformational
Leadership Practices
Revenue Growth 841% -49%
Stock Price Growth 204% 76%

Ref: Download the full report at Leadership Practices, Adaptive Corporate Culture, and Company Financial Performance, Sonoma Leadership Systems.

These practices, sifted out of an enormous body of research by Posner and Kouzes and documented in their book The Leadership Challenge, boil down to five behaviors that any mildly conscious being can learn to adopt:

  • Model the Way – Be a good example of the behaviors you’d like to see in others.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision – Get everyone working toward shared goals.
  • Challenge the Process – Break out of “same old way” thinking and innovate.
  • Enable Others to Act – Support other people’s success.
  • Encourage the Heart – Practice an attitude of gratitude. Keep hope alive.

For practical tips on what exactly you should do to become this kind of leader you can read the book, but a one-page summary is available on the Leadership Challenge website.


Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us neatly refutes the effectiveness of motivation techniques that have been practiced for years in business. In his “Cocktail Party Summary,” Pink says:

When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements:

  1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
  2. Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  3. Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

And Gallup research, captured in the book 12: The Elements of Great Managing, and expounded upon in Marcus Buckingham’s book First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, found that the most significant factor in employee productivity and retention is their relationship with their direct manager. This research identifies the 12 characteristics of workplaces that are proven in general to produce substantially higher revenue, profit, employee retention, and customer delight. Employees of managers who support these practices will undoubtedly find their personal experience of their company culture surpasses that of their less fortunate colleagues.

The most effective managers are those whose people would answer “yes” to the following 12 questions (thus the clever name for the Gallup book). You’ll notice that most of these practices don’t cost a penny, so there’s no hiding behind tough economic times and budget cuts.

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?


It’s my observation that the biggest obstacles to success are self-induced. In his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t, Jim Collins supported this with his description of successful organizations: “Disciplined people, thinking and acting with discipline.” Wow, can it be that simple? It just comes down to people doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done? Yup, successful people do what is required when it is required, whether they feel like doing it or not. And before doing it, they think about why they’re doing it, what they hope to achieve, and how they could most effectively go about doing it. Granted, it’s easier said than done. I’ve found these three habits, practiced with discipline, separate people who intend to create results from those who actually do:

  • Obsessing over Clear Goals
  • Striving tirelessly for Clear Communication
  • Ruthlessly setting Clear Priorities

As obvious as these sound, I shamelessly admit that instantiating these basic practices into individual behavior and company cultures comprises the bulk of my consulting work. Sure, there are another 9 elements key to successfully achieving results, but you can read all about that in my book Scrappy Project Management – The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces if you are still among the 6,699,925,324 people on Earth who have not purchased (or pirated) a copy.


Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (personally, I was surprised to find there were only five dysfunctions) asserts that teams fail due to an absence of trust, which leads to fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. Team results, he claims, are built on a foundation of trust, healthy conflict, commitment, and accountability, as shown below in the “Five Functions of a Team” version of this model:


Figure 3. The Five FUNCTIONS of a Team, as Opposed to the Five DYSfunctions.

Start by building trust. It only takes a second to destroy trust, and building trust takes a long time, so you’d best start today. If you can’t think of how to build trust, imagine how you would destroy it, and then do the opposite. And, in spite of the best of intentions of the people involved, every relationship is vulnerable to misunderstandings that can erode trust, so you’ll also need to build in ways to repair damaged trust if you want your relationship to survive such mishaps.

Once trust is established you can move up to engaging in healthy conflict—sharing different perspectives, raising concerns and arguing over different approaches to take in the business. By learning to “fight as if you’re right and listen as if you’re wrong,” you’ll be able to tap into the group genius and surface ideas that would normally just be part of the grumbling in the cafeteria. Inviting people to openly share a healthy diversity of opinions also lays the foundation for real commitment to the agreements that result, and subsequent accountability to fulfill the promises each person has made in support of the results. This stands in opposition to the focus on internal politics, status, and ego that passes for “work” in many organizations.

Oh, That Will Never Work Here

Of course, as a consultant I’m used to hearing, “Our company is different, Kimberly. That will never work here,” followed by a string of all the reasons why these practices, proven in thousands of companies with hundreds of thousands of people, will fail at THIS particular company. Yeah, right. Well, if your company really IS quite different from the norm, you might be plopping someone else’s island top onto your base. Of course that won’t work. But, if you are working with a bunch of human beings (and I suspect you are) there are probably at least a few ideas here worth trying.

I sincerely hope that neither country culture nor company culture is an unchangeable force field that keeps us locked into ineffective ways of behaving. If the explanation for our difficulties is “That’s just the way our culture is,” the implication being that we can’t change . . . we’re doomed. Change happens one courageous act at a time. Get busy.

Transformatively yours, – Kimberly

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