Changing Business Culture – Overnight.

Many businesses in our corporate world say they need, want, to change their business culture. They talk in terms of how many years, five or ten, it will take to shift their existing culture. It can, of course, change overnight.


Active Knowledge Question:

Have you ever wanted to change something in your life, but it wasn’t until you hit rock bottom that you discovered the strength within you to say enough, and then suddenly the change happened overnight?



Change is a best achieved from the inside-out, not the outside-in.

If someone tells you must change then at best, the change will be one of compliance. This change, outside-in, is best framed as a reluctant acceptance of something you have to do, not something that you want to do or believe you need to do.

However, I think all of us as individuals have goals, things we want to change in our lives. Things which we believe will make our lives and us happier, healthier and more successful in what is important to us. These are the changes that occur from the inside-out, even though the desire to change may have been seeded by something or someone else, it is a change that we believe in.

Often, we take a gradual approach to change in our lives. We sort of ease our way into it. We tell ourselves that change is not easy, that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. This approach to change is usually not that successful, but we forgive ourselves.

Change requires discipline, focus and momentum. All of which adds up to commitment. If we are not committed to the change, we will be unable to sustain the effort required for the shift to bite, and then form a new habit.

If the ‘want’ within you is strong enough, then you can change in the blink of an eye. The capability to change is within us all, but can we muster the commitment to enforce that change?

And this is where change is best seeded from the inside-out. We need to want to change. Moreover, we need to set ourselves up to win by removing all the barriers that will stop the change from taking hold.


In Business

Achieving a change of culture is a business is, at its core, no different from someone trying to change a bad habit/trait or adopt a good habit/trait. Thinking of it, in the same way, makes it easier to frame what the change will require.

When we hear language within a business that its culture needs to change, it usually reflects performance problems. Things are happening in the business that really should not be happening – poor quality, breaches of regulations and code, poor decision-making impacting brand, and so the list can continue.

Also, of course, there is, what many would consider as the number one performance issue, not making enough profit.

But profit as a performance issue is a double-edged sword when it comes to business culture. A profit-first motive seeds self-interest, politics and short-termism. It is, in fact, the cause of many of the ‘performance problems’ that businesses are now seeking to address through cultural change programmes.

Profit should always be viewed as an outcome achieved by a competitively fit business. And if profit is not where you would like it to be, then you must improve the competitiveness of the business. Often the focus goes to the profit result and the remedies applied actually reduce competitiveness and seed many other performance problems.

It must also be remembered that culture is formed by leadership. If there are cultural problems, then it is a failure of leadership. Why? Because leadership sets and controls the environment that seeds the culture that exists.

Moreover, bear in mind the physics of centripetal leadership which if correctly formed can strengthen ‘want’ and support change.


What Is Culture Anyway?

We can make business culture far more complicated than it need be. The simplest way to think of culture is who the business is if it were a person. What is its character and traits as if we were a person?

What does the business think of the world outside and itself? What does success look like for it, what motivates it, and what values does it hold true? These are some of the aspects that make up who we are as a person, and which define a business’s culture. You could simply say it’s all about attitude.

The culture of your business should, and must, support the competitive posture of your business. That is the way you have chosen to compete in your marketplace to deliver winning customer value.

Understanding the inherent design required for your business to be able to deliver that customer value will unlock the common and unique personality traits required within your business. Every business will, or should have, a unique design to the way in which it functions and brings all of its operating parts together to deliver the customer value around which it competes.

So, when we are talking about changing the culture of a business, we are looking to change its attitude, what it considers important, how it treats others, views itself and where its priorities lie.


The Agents Of Culture

There is a range of agents that impact and shape the culture within a business. There is an existing culture which reflects the history of the business, but that culture is not fixed and can be changed.

It is through the agents of culture that change can be initiated and sustained. Here are some of the agents of culture:

  • What do we see as our reason for existence as a business?
  • What motivates us as a business?
  • What does success look like for us?
  • What systems and processes have we put in place to support the performance of the business?
  • What goals have we set?
  • What behaviours does our reward system encourage, support and allow?
  • How do we operate as a business?

These agents of culture are reflected through purpose, vision, business strategy, reward structures, systems and processes and importantly, the actions of leaders who reflect the workings of all of these elements.

Alignment is a great way to think of these agents of culture. As you map each of these agents, the question becomes what type of behaviour will this agent lead to, and is it the type of behaviour that will support the way we intend to compete as a business?


Changing Culture

A single decision can change culture – I will do this, and I will not do that. And it can occur in the blink of an eye even within a business.

In the blink of an eye:

  • I can go to bed one night and say enough; I am getting at up 5 am Monday to Friday and going to yoga to improve my health and vitality.
  • A board, a CEO, can say enough; this behaviour will no longer be accepted in our business. To do so is a fundamental breach which will result in immediate dismissal, no matter who you may be.

Both decisions require commitment and courage. Both decisions require a ‘want’ for the change to occur. Both decisions will be tested and will require the willingness to enforce discipline.

Yes, in a business context, there is a need for company-wide communication, changes to processes and systems, and a myriad of other matters. But change starts with a succinct statement of the change and visible actions to make it occur and to be reinforced.

Act first and then sort out the detail, and change will occur. Allow doubters, resistors and procrastinators to take hold and change will never happen.


If you sincerely believe change is important then do it and do it now. It does not have to drawn-out; it just has to be proclaimed and upheld to take immediate effect.


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All the best in the success of your business,

Richard Shrapnel