The growth of a company
Scott Berkun, author of Amazon’s Best Book of 2013, The Year Without Pants, astutely commented, “There is no company that has the same culture today that it did 10, 20 or 100 years ago. Cultures often change dramatically as they shift from birth, to immature success, to full maturity and of course the vast majority of companies die before they even hit [corporate] adolescence.” If that concept is difficult to wrap yourself around then ask the first ten employees who leave a successful company what prompted them to leave and many will answer “The company changed.”
Which brings me to today’s question: Why do company cultures change or shift over time? The easy answer is “It probably needed to change to continue its success.” Ok I’ll concede that but the bigger question is HOW. Because change does not come easy. Companies that evolve and adapt continue standing others that don’t whither on the vine.
Change takes time
Let’s face it: A company’s culture can’t be traded as if it were a used car. For all its benefits and blemishes, it’s a legacy that remains uniquely that of the company. Which is exactly why many companies don’t change. Take Kodak in Rochester, NY. For decades Kodak remained set in ways. That whole digital photography thing? Just a fad! No way would a roll of film ever get bumped for a memory card! Right? Just ask all the employees who were forced to retire.
According to an article on Harvard Business Review:
“It takes years to alter how people think, feel, and behave, and even then, the differences may not be meaningful. When that’s the case, an organization with an old, powerful culture can devolve into disaster.”
This has happened at organizations like the above mentioned Kodak but also organizations as diverse as Washington Mutual, Home Depot (before its recent turnaround), and even the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
HBR explains that “The impetus for change lies with managers and leaders who are willing to work with corporate cultures and within them, rather than fight them.” The result is that cultures do evolve over time: Sometimes slipping backward and sometimes progressing. Change comes in baby steps and sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
Getting back to Scott Berkun, he found himself within a culture that was not used to being shaken up. While that approach may not work for every team he was able to institute change with little things like benchmarks and deadlines for long range projects and thinking.
Harvard Business Review meanwhile points out five principals that are worth applying if change is to be expected:
1. Match strategy and culture
2. Focus on a few critical shifts in behavior
3. Honor the strengths of your existing culture
4. Integrate formal and informal interventions
5. Measure and monitor cultural evolution
Read more about these principals here. The most successful companies are the ones that consider corporate culture as a competitive advantage: An instrument for change. Managers that can facilitate such change have broken the code so to speak. Not an easy thing to do.