How Do You Balance A Culture & Business Transformation?

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Hilton Barbour

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My wife loves Mark Walhberg.

I mean she has a very serious crush on the former Markey Mark and his world-class abs. Which might explain why we were watching one of his movies – “Shooter” – for the 4th time recently. As added context, I wasn’t closing the gap on “Mr 8-pack abs” by slurping my way through a pint of Ben&Jerry’s either.

In one pivotal scene Walhberg is coaching Michael Pena on the discipline and focus needed to be a sniper when he utters the immortal Zen sniper line:

“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”

I’ve always loved the weird mental hurdles and conflicts inherent in that saying because it perfectly articulates what I’ve seen and heard repeatedly in the Culture and Digital Transformation interviews I’ve conducted.

An organizational imperative – nay impatience – to transform at the speed of the market. Or at the speed of a market driven by 90-day analyst calls and leadership tenure of less than 3 years.

Balanced with a reality that Culture – the People part, not the Pixels part – doesn’t change with nearly that speed or with that certainty.

This reality can be a source of significant frustration for many executives and may explain why many would prefer to ignore the Culture piece entirely or seek quick cosmetic fixes that do more to impact “climate” than they do to actually transform Culture. This excellent piece from Culture University on Climate is a great read.

Addressing climate is not the same as transforming Culture.

Among many of the excellent sayings Culture expert Edgar Schein posits is this one – “Culture arises through shared experiences of success ” – with the words I’ve underlined a critical component.

Shared experiences is important because it highlights that more than one individual, one team, one division must be involved if it can be considered a cultural transformation. Sure it must start somewhere and blossom but it can only be considered a transformation if it spreads and takes root across an organization.

Success is critical too. And, as any Change Management expert will attest, that often means false starts and mis-steps occur before success genuinely happens. Success means you need to have a clear definition of what success means for your Transformation. It also requires the acuity to measure and track success. Finally success needs to be sustained – particularly because many Culture Transformations go through the very real employee skepticism of “here we go again…” and “Oh boy, another Management bright shiny fad is working its way down the pipe…” Moving from your current Culture to your desired Culture requires your colleagues to see that the behaviours that epitomize “success” are actually consistent and not just episodic or a flash in the pan.

So what can impatient executive do to transform their Culture at something approaching the velocity of their Digital Transformation?

#1, acknowledge that you’ll need to address your Culture at some point and that human beings do adapt and change slower than the speed with which you can upgrade your servers or switch to a cloud-based SAAS model.

Brian Fetherstonhaugh summed it up beautifully in one interview when he said “Culture is a deliberate, relentless, often expensive and painful set of choices you make every single day.”

#2, do some type of Culture Audit or Culture diagnostic to truly understand what Culture you currently have. That isn’t an Employee Engagement Survey (sorry guys) but a genuine Audit that has both qualitative and quantitative components. Your CIO isn’t going to transform your IT infrastructure and vendors without comprehensively auditing your current systems, why would you try to transform your people without knowing exactly where your Culture is today.

#3, accept that Leadership carries a disproportionate responsibility for the efficacy and velocity with which any change occurs. That means YOU are a key determinant. Saying one thing and doing another will doom a Culture Transformation faster than a lack of funding or a poor definition of success. Leadership style – are you building trust, transparency, openness?and Leadership commitment – are you in in for the long haul? Are you prepared to make the tough calls? – are critical and those can’t be delegated.

#4, have a realistic expectation of the speed that a full Culture Transformation will take. Factors like size, geographic spread, societal culture, industry vertical are all factors which can’t be dismissed – see #2 above – but even taking those into consideration, studies suggest it takes at least one organizational generation for Transformation to go from identification to implementation to adoption.

I was intrigued by this article by Barry Phegan on where he suggests an exponential relationship between the number of employees and the time required – all other factors being equal. 10 employees = 1 Year, 100 Employees = 2 Years, 1,000 employees = 3 Years…and so on. If you’ve got any evidence to support or refute Barry’s assertion, I’d love to hear about it.

That time scale shouldn’t curtail your desire in the slightest and shouldn’t prevent you from starting either.

Perhaps the most important step to ask yourself is one that Edgar Schein raises in many of his books – Why do you believe you need to transform your existing Culture in the first place?

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast

While Digital Transformation is the business imperative de jour, I sometimes question how many organizations are doing it because it is genuinely critical to their survival or because everybody else seems to be doing it and they can’t be seen not to.

It’s such a good vibration It’s such a sweet sensation It’s such a good vibration It’s such a sweet sensation**

Knowing the complexities of a Culture Transformation, and the potential margin for error, perhaps the best start is to repeat after me…

Then, in time you can graduate to

I’ve just released my 2nd eBook on the Intersection of Culture and Digital Transformation. It includes a variety of interviews with business leaders in Telecommunications, Beverages, Packaged Goods, Healthcare and Professional Services. Download it for free from

** – lyrics from “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Now this is what my wife really crushes on.


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