Jo Geraghty


Culture Change: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

Date added: 05th Jul 2011
Category: Organisational Culture Change

Culture change means keeping the stuff that works and ditching the bits that don’t!

In business as in life generally it is fairly easy to start something new and very difficult to then change course.  For many organisations “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” could hang above their doors as the company motto and few would argue.

The psychology of our reaction to change makes a fascinating study in its own right:

  • Is the love of the familiar a comfort in itself?  Certainly studies into horrific conditions endured by humanity have highlighted our ability to adapt to the environment, however harsh, and eventually accept it as the norm.
  • Is the willingness to accept an existing culture part of our survival mechanism?  Certainly the lives of those who fit in and don’t question tends to be easier than those of the people who try and take a stand.
  • Or is the tendency to cling to a behaviour pattern simply a reaction to the pace of technological change?

How are we rewarded for changing?

The last question raises an interesting point.  When it comes to the smartest phone, the latest app, the newest “beat ‘em up” game we happily queue all night just to be the first to take that next step up in technology.  So if changing technological devices is easy why do we resist when a change in behaviour is suggested?

Why behaviours differ from technology  when it comes to change

Partly the answer is down to reward.  With technology we can easily see the advantages of the new.  Faster, better, smarter or more fun, technology promises much and we happily ditch the old without a backward glance.  With behavioural change the rewards are not always as instantly visible.  However, once understood, there is a danger that we then follow the same pathway as with technology, ditching the old and charging forward with our new road map.

Whilst this “new lamps for old” method of working may be fine for technology it is almost the last thing that we should do when dealing with human behaviour.  You see, what we tend to forget is that with technology, what worked well in the past is still there underpinning the new.  Every edition of Excel still works on a grid and allows you to add and multiply and every edition of Word still allows you to write in italics for emphasis. The basics are still there and the changes have just enabled you to be faster, smarter or bolder.

Keeping the positives and changing the bad bits

So when it comes to cultural change it is as important to identify and keep those basic cultural norms which work as it is to integrate an organisational realignment.  The most successful cultural change programmes are those which highlight and retain existing positive cultural behaviour whilst replacing negative patterns.  Partly this is due to the benefit of positive reinforcement.  Sports coaches are particularly adept at this.  Comments along the lines of “that was a fantastic shot and now let’s make it even better by …” produce a far more positive and long lasting improvement than “no, No, NO, that’s all wrong let’s start again….” followed by an exasperated sigh.

As culture change specialists Culture Consultancy understands the importance of identifying and keeping the positives as well as replacing the negative.  In a way, whilst we wouldn’t fully agree with the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” model we may well advocate “if it ain’t broke, keep it, improve on it and get the best out of it” as a model for cultural change and a way to help an organisation to grow.

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