Changing Culture - What Comes First?

Note: It seems to me that every CEO I talk with these days is obsessed with changing culture in their workplace and the most often asked question to me is, "How do we do this?" My short answer is, "Slowly and patiently." The longer answer is, "Read on." Enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at


What is Culture?

Wikipedia defines culture as, "The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize an institution, business, organization, or group."   Although a bit clinical, I like that definition; it cuts right to the chase. Most CEO's tell me that they have a culture and it is fair to not so good. They often like to blame that on bad employees, bad managers, etc., but I stop them there and say, "If the culture is not good to great, you are the problem. Culture in your business is a direct reflection of the example established by you. If you want a high performing team with long term success, the #1 focus and priority for you should be company culture.” That usually stops them right in their tracks; some deny it, but sooner or later, as we continue to talk, most of them own it. Then, the next question comes around to the title of this weeks blog, "How do we change our culture and what comes first."

Systematizing Emotional Change

I have had the distinct pleasure of knowing and working with Chris Hutchinson from Trebuchet Group in Fort Collins, CO, for 4 years and I learned an important lesson from him and reading the author Patrick Lencioni about change. Change is an emotionally charged subject, especially since human beings always seek what biologists and social scientists call homeostasis; the Wiki definition of which is, "the property of a system in which variables are regulated so that internal conditions remain stable and relatively constant." When homeostasis is not maintained, human beings react in one of three ways that are very primal; fight, fright, or flight. That translates into 4 behaviors; denial, resistance, exploration, and commitment; resistance being the focal point about the most difficult challenge to changing culture. When change can be systematized with a plan that manages change step by step (small steps), change is easier for people when they can see and achieve short-term goals and destinations.

I have a great real-life example about that; in the early 90's I taught skiing at the Steamboat Ski and Resort Company on weekends to get a free season pass and to improve my own abilities. This was a very challenging endeavor for me, as I was always dealing with fear; people rarely come to ski lessons to improve, they come to overcome their fears.

I had a private lesson one day with a middle-aged woman who wanted to learn how to ski so she could ski with her husband on the intermediate trails on the mountain. We started with the basics, at the bottom of the mountain within the safe boundaries of the beginner area. She surprised and amazed me by mastering the basics of stopping and turning in just one day and wanted to go higher on the mountain. Accordingly, the next morning, we went up to a lower intermediate area and, once again, she was turning and stopping like a person that had been skiing for a few years.

Buoyed by her enthusiasm and skills, she wanted to go higher still the next day and I agreed, once she showed me again, that she could consistently master the lower intermediate area. The next morning she nailed that and we boarded the lift for mid-mountain. A quick 15 minute chairlift ride later we were standing at 8500 feet above the valley floor and ready to ski. (NOTE: Keep in mind that, when you ride and get off the chairlift, you are looking up the whole time.) As soon as she turned around and looked down at the base of the ski area 2000 feet below, dotted with seemingly miniature buildings and little people, she froze. Fear had taken over her emotions and she actually could not proceed any further. I tried several techniques; breaking up the journey into smaller distances, me skiing backwards and having her look at me, singing songs together; all to no avail. Finally, for her safety, I called the ski patrol and they took her down to the base area on a snowmobile.

What did I learn?

Although she had the mechanical skills to ski very adequately near the base of the mountain, when I took her a 1/2 mile up the mountain, the distance to where she needed to go to be safe again was just too great. As her "leader," I missed several steps in the process of change for her and her abilities. I had not followed the "4 P's" for communicating transition and change:

  1. The Purpose for Change - I had followed that - she wanted to become a good enough skier to ski with her husband;
  2. The Plan to get to her goal - I failed here; I was following her plan and not the lesson plan that is prescribed by the governing organization for ski instructors;
  3. The Picture of what it would look like when we reached the goal - if anything, we were both focused so much on this that we were not thinking enough about the process to get us there.
  4. The Part she would play in the change we both wanted to achieve - I believe she knew what was expected of her, but I had not given her a complete perspective on the Plan and what this entailed for her.

We both learned a lot that day and the good news is that she didn't lose faith in me, so we went back to the area where she had been last successful and kept working on mechanical and confidence skills. There is a happy ending here too; a few years later she sought me out at the Ski School and told me she was skiing with her husband all over the mountain and loving it. I smiled for the rest of that day.

Fast Forward

Just like learning a new skill, changing culture is much the same. Taking small steps/making small changes, driven first by a plan, and consistently reminding people of where the vision for the future will take them, what it will look like when they arrive, and, most important of all, what and how the new destination will benefit them. This is very tidily summarized within the systems of organizational development, next week's topic.

Next week: Changing culture; step by step - what comes next?