The Hazards of Leading Culture Change

Photo by David Reece on Flickr
Photo by David Reece on Flickr

I’m thinking about change and culture and innovation a great deal these days so I’m reading everything I can get my hands on.  I came across this paper, or manifesto – The Hazards of Leading Culture Change. Its concise but packed with good stuff!

Some of my favorite points:

  • When you are up to your backside in alligators, it is hard to remember you were there to drain the swamp.
  • …the illusion of advancement is far worse than none at all.
  • Three turtles sat on a log in the edge of the swamp. One decided to jump in. How many are now on the log? Nope, there are still three. Deciding and doing are not the same thing.
  • Leaders sometime achieve their positions through competencies in other than superior leadership of people.
  • Without hands-on trial and error and confrontation of outdated behaviors – all done with a helpful but unswerving facilitator – employees will not likely give up obsolete tasks
  • Old ways can die hard – for employees and for customers.  Even if the old way has been a negative to customers, they have learned to deal with it. They also can harbor some of the same cynicism as employees, and may actually work to sabotage new efforts.
  • When leaders have even the slightest doubt about the worth of the vision or the correctness of the strategies, they can acquiesce and soften their resolve before the culture change effort has had a chance to gain a solid footing
  • Culture change takes a long time because its complex and disruptive.
  • What separates the culture change winners from those that drop out of the race? It starts with a clear vision that is clear, compelling and constantly used both as the anchor for judgement and a lens for alignment.

These are just a few nuggets of wisdom, go read the whole paper.

10 thoughts on “The Hazards of Leading Culture Change

  1. This is a very good manifesto. One of the nuggets you missed was walking the talk. I am with an organisation which is restructuring. The decree has come from national office and we were given targets to meet but had some choices as to how the local restructuring happened. We are the first region to implement change. Why? Our fearless leader spoke to every person concerned personally and addressed their fears. She is now leading the way, supporting everyone in the way they need supporting and attending training herself showing that everyone is in the same boat.


    1. The notion of “culture change” always puts me in mind of the French Revolution. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but there’s a sense of militancy disguised as clear thinking embedded in the idea that can be quite destructive when practiced. The reason “old ways can die hard” is primarily because it’s written into our nature to often fear and/or resent change.

      In my experience it is better to steer than to forcibly change. It may take longer, but the process requires less anxious tweaking, and the results are far more stable.


  2. Another one that I would add — not making a decision is itself a decision. That is, uncertainty and doubt can prevent needed action. Look at Hamlet, for example. I have my own story about learning this lesson personally (and painfully) one day on the Stanislaus River. Maybe one day I can buy you a drink and tell it to you.


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