How do you change an organizational culture? by steve denning

Changing an organization’s culture is one of the most difficult leadership challenges. That’s because an organization’s culture comprises an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions.

The elements fit together as an mutually reinforcing system and combine to prevent any attempt to change it. That’s why single-fix changes, such as the introduction of teams, or Lean, or Agile, or Scrum, or knowledge management, or some new process, may appear to make progress for a while, but eventually the interlocking elements of the organizational culture take over and the change is inexorably drawn back into the existing organizational culture.

Changing a culture is a large-scale undertaking, and eventually all of the organizational tools for changing minds will need to be put in play. However the order in which they deployed has a critical impact on the likelihood of success.

In general, the most fruitful success strategy is to begin with leadership tools, including a vision or story of the future, cement the change in place with management tools, such as role definitions, measurement and control systems, and use the pure power tools of coercion and punishments as a last resort, when all else fails.

Frequent mistakes in trying to change culture include:

* Overuse of the power tools of coercion and underuse of leadership tools.
* Beginning with a vision or story, but failing to put in place the management tools that will cement the behavioral changes in place.
* Beginning with power tools even before a clear vision or story of the future is in place.

These lessons are evident in successive efforts to change the organizational culture of the World Bank over a period of almost half a century.

The challenge of culture change at the World Bank.

The World Bank represents a particularly difficult case of organizational culture change.

Its formal goal – development – is ambiguous. The institution itself is a peculiar mix of a philanthropic foundation, a university and a bank. As an international organization, it is owned by the governments of the world, with a resident board of directors and their staffs who are ever present and ready to second-guess the management.

In a broad sense, the World Bank is a great success. It’s easy to forget that fifty years ago, India, China and Korea were seen as basket cases requiring Western charity in perpetuity: today, they are independent economic powers in their own right, as a result in part to the implementation of economic policies that the World Bank has been coaching them over many years.

But the remaining development problems in the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, remain intractable. And the new global issues such as the environment present new challenges for the World Bank to play a different role from the past.

Successive presidents have come and tried to change it, mostly with little success.

Robert McNamara: World Bank President 1968-1981.

The most successful president by far in terms of changing the culture was Robert McNamara. After a career at the Ford Motor Company, of which McNamara became head in 1960, he was the U. S. secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968 and president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981.

His most lasting accomplishment at the World Bank is, for better or worse, that he introduced hierarchical bureaucracy, with its attendant goals, roles, accountabilities, values and communications.

And we know how he did it.


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How do you change an organizational culture? by steve denning