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No Secret Sauce to Culture Change, Just Hard Work


Wed Apr 26 2017

No Secret Sauce to Culture Change, Just Hard Work
No Secret Sauce to Culture Change, Just Hard Work-afe9e93443d11aeca1e423106ddb6d966a6ab58caaeb535141ef3d4eb32f4a8a

Imagine that you are the CEO of Fortune 500 company and your direct reports are pitching a new business expansion opportunity in Asia. At the conclusion of the presentations by your staff, you ask a fairly reasonable question: “What is the chance of success?” Silence fills the room and your people literally start looking at their shoes. Finally, your chief strategist for foreign operations says, “Well, uh, actually not very good.” You say, “When you say ‘not very good’ what exactly do you mean?” Your chief strategist pauses and after a big gulp says, “Actually there is only a 30 percent chance that this effort will succeed.” 

I know what you’re thinking, “Hey wait a minute. No staff in their right minds would ever pitch anything like that to their boss with that little chance of success.” You would be correct, except for one scenario that is repeated in corporate America and in government every year: culture change. 


For a variety of reasons, organizations often make the decision “to change the culture around here.” Corporate executives and government leaders whip out the checkbook and start writing big fat checks to consultants. 

No matter whose statistics you like, the success rate for culture change programs is no more than 35 percent—and probably closer to 25 percent. Most reasonable people would pass on those odds. So, why do the lemmings still march to the sea? Well, I believe there are basically two camps writing those big checks every year. One follows the mantra of “we should do this because it is the right thing to do.” They truly mean well and give it their best. The other camp simply says, “The quickest way to get out of this national scandal that is on television 24/7 is to announce a new culture change program.” 

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like either camp doesn’t have some success. The very fact that management is now coming around asking employees to participate in engagement surveys and focus groups usually results in a temporary uptick in employee morale. That’s assuming, though, that the employees didn’t go through the last culture change program that whimpered and died an ignominious death. If they did, those employees will be the ones telling the “newbies” something like, “Just keep your head down. They sound sincere, but they don’t mean it.” 

The reality is that companies and government agencies would be far better off never initiating one of these culture change programs rather than continuing to harden employees to the possibility that things might actually change. One immutable rule for culture change is simply this: “If you can’t sustain it, don’t start it.” The problem is that it is very tempting to take yet another chance on the latest “secret sauce.” If you doubt that, stop in to your local bookstore and peruse the business section where all the leadership and change management books are stacked. The truth is that there is a lot of tasty looking sauce there. (I should know. I bought most of those books.) 

The ugly truth is that sustaining culture change is one of the hardest things you can ever attempt to do as a private-sector company or a government agency. The good news is that your chances of being successful can rise dramatically if you merely closely examine what those outliers—sometimes called the “positive deviants”—accomplished. You know who I mean, the organizations that actually turned their cultures around and sustained change. How did they do that? 


As the Inspector General at the Tennessee Valley Authority, I am always eager to talk about the wonderful people in the Office of Inspector General, who led our office to become the highest numerically ranked government office for 2015 and 2016 on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint engagement survey. We have been told that a score of 96.3 was probably the highest score ever recorded on this survey. More importantly, that score represents a high-performing team that gets spectacular operational results—and they have been doing that for over five years. 

Join me at the ATD 2017 International Conference & Exposition for the session: Proven Employee Engagement Strategies. I look forward to walking you through how one government agency defied the odds and sustained a high-performing culture. There is no secret sauce, but there is a repeatable and sustainable method.

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