How Organisational Culture and Organisational Change Interact

To understand how organisational culture and change interact, it is first necessary to establish some understanding of what culture actually is.

 It’s not easy to understand culture because it isn’t something you can see – though you can see evidence of it everywhere.  Yet even though the concept is abstract it refers to something real; something that is experienced by everyone who comes into contact with the organisation.  Not only is it experienced, but in subtle or significant ways people also influence it.  

 Organisational culture is too big a concept to explore in this article, so let me offer a very superficial explanation of what it is.  It refers to how things are in the organisation.  This covers everything from the things you can actually see (the physical layout and presentation of buildings, how people dress, etc.); the values that drive what people do, how they relate to each other, and what they are trying to do; and the assumptions people make about how and what goes on within the organisation.

 It is important to realise that if culture represents how things are in an organisation, change is going to affect how things are.  It is always going to change how things are. Therefore, change is always going to affect culture, and culture is always going to influence the success of change.  

 Now we know that change comes in different sizes.  Minimal change affects how things are in small ways.  Figure 1 shows how minimal change might affect an organisation.


Figure 1: How minimal change interacts with organisational culture


Figure 1 refers to changes that don’t have a big impact on how things are within the organisation.  For example, management may make changes to the scheduling of meetings: like changing a meeting from Monday morning to Wednesday morning.  You still have to attend the meeting, it just happens on a different day.  This small change is represented by the picture on the left.

 The picture on the right of Figure 1 shows that culture pushes back and resists the change.  Why does it push back?  Because the way things are is under threat – people are used to and familiar with the way things are. Yet the change is relatively small, and as such it isn’t a big threat.  We might expect resistance to be minimal.

 But what happens when the change is much more than minimal?  Figure 2 shows what happens in this scenario.


Figure 2: How significant change interacts with organisational culture


The left image in Figure 2 shows an organisation that is impacted by some serious change – it may be a restructuring, a merger, an acquisition, or significant IT change. Such change is going to radically affect how things are within the organisation.  It is going to have a major impact on people’s lives and work practices.

The picture on the right shows that since culture is under serious threat, it pushes back strongly.  We could expect many people will resist such a powerful threat to the way things are.

Now, we must be realistic – there are many changes that fall between these two extremes.  And some changes may be welcome – they may be seen as a godsend, not a threat.  That said, the problems we mostly have with change are where it is disruptive and threatening.

Change may be so significant that the existing culture will have to change radically to make the change successful. In other words, for the change to be successful in the long-term it must become a ‘normal’ part of how things are within the organisation – a new kind of normal.

Establishing a new kind of normal for how things are is harder to achieve than installing new I.T. systems, culling staff, or merging with another company.  Yet for these things to be successful a new kind of normal must be established – organisational culture must change.

This is where change readiness becomes so important.  People who are adept at change and strong in change readiness find it easier to transition to a new kind of normal than people who struggle with change.  Organisations that analyse their change readiness and prepare for change accordingly find it easier to transition to a new kind of normal than ones that were never ready for change in the first place.

Change is costly – even more so if it fails. It becomes less costly and more likely to succeed if you lay the proper foundation.  What is that foundation?  The proper foundation is making sure your organisation is ready for change and ready to succeed. 

Steve Barlow

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