Culture’s Impact On Successful Change

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

By now we’ve all heard that famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker and have come to recognize its validity. To grasp the powerful connection between culture and strategy, think no further than your last change initiative. Many change initiatives derail shortly after launch due to outright rejection or steady erosion. Change planners overlook and significantly undervalue the power of organizational culture. And, even when change plans implode, few leaders examine how organizational and societal culture contributed to the failure.

Change initiatives frequently fall short and the most cited reason for that failure is culture. Evaluations performed post-change report that up front change planning only considered culture in 24% of the initiatives.

Culture encompasses ideas, values, traditions, and those principles impact social relationships and practices. For change to be fully successful, change goals and culture must be aligned.  Cultural dimensions expand beyond individual organizational traditions to include global cultural distinctions.

Five cultural variables must be considered when crafting a change plan:

  • Power distribution practices
  • Gender assumptions and stereotypes
  • Risk tolerance levels
  • Length of time horizon
  • Indulgence and compliance expectations

Power distribution

Change efforts to flatten an organization may challenge power distribution expectations. Some leaders and societies prefer to employ hierarchy, chain of command and acceptance of unequal authority as positive characteristics.  Eastern cultures may employ greater power distinction by title.  The respect for rank may include having employees stand when their manager enters a room.  An action unlikely to be seen in Western cultures where there is less deference to position and title.

Gender Assumptions

Diversity initiatives might stumble if they deviate significantly from gender and ethnic stereotypes. Assumptions that only males are assertive and achievement oriented combined with the supposition that females alone are cooperative and caring can stifle inclusion initiatives. Silicon Valley, which is largely viewed as progressive, has gender imbalances in the ranks of management.

Risk Orientation

Culture based disparities also surface in terms of risk orientation. Some cultures embrace elevated levels of risk and rapid change believing that risk produces rewards.  While risk avoidance emerges in a desire for consistency and an avoidance of ambiguity to steer clear of danger. This pattern dominates across nationalities and industries. Utilities traditionally shift slowly while IT firms leap swiftly at opportunities. The same risk practices separate nations where the US accepts risk, while some Eastern countries accept risk with more caution.

Time Horizons

Power distinctions, gender and ethnic assumptions, and risk orientation are daunting factors, but even more formidable is a cultural split based on time frames. Some organizations stress the need for long-term planning when others emphasize immediate action. Thirty-year planning horizons are comfortable for some while others prefer an annual plan. The latter assumes that information is changing so fast that the window for accuracy requires short-term planning.   Military planning stretches far beyond that short window of time.  The military-like leaders in China operate using a framework that is decades long.

Indulgence and Restraint

Military organizations also require a level of discipline and strict regulations that constrain social input. Objectives like employee gratification, a level of joy, flexibility, and fun common to many firms are not prevalent in military organizations. Indulgent firms and societies allow relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives reflected in an effort to enjoy life and have fun. Discipline or restraint cultures ignore gratification to regulate behavior.  Uniform behavior strengthens efficiency, predictability, stability, confidence, and trust. Each viewpoint offers benefits and possesses limitations.

Culture is relevant in planning change. Assessing which view is right or wrong is not germane.  We must operate given the existing culture, which means we must recognize cultural variables. The ready, fire aim approach has not worked in the past and it won’t work in the future. We cannot “plan now and think later” if we want change to be successful.


Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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  1. I often have this conversation Culture versus Strategy. I say what comes first? Vision. What comes next? Mission. Then what? Strategy. Wait, or is it culture? Or is a blend of strategy or culture?

    I think what trumps what really depends on what is driving change within the organization. Is that change improvements or transformation? If it’s strategy trump culture your organization is changing through improvements and you train people to follow the steps and provide them incentives to follow those steps. But when culture trumps strategy, the business’s success requires people to take initiative and be proactive — doing things that you have difficulty to put a process around or train for.

    I find that being able and open to have the conversation is much more important than what trumps what. Then we have a baseline on what is a strategy’s scope.

    • Hi Chris,
      You made some great points. The degree of change is a significant factor for consideration. Currently I am finding more people are focused on incremental or transactional change. Those that tackle transformational change unfortunately apply the same tools and processes cited by those who successfully navigate transactional change. Analyzing the scope of change is critical. I think track record on past change efforts is also an important factor. Change fatigue exist, especially when the past change failed to meet expectations. Thanks for your comment.

    • Hi Chris,
      Yes, I am very familiar with Kotter’s work and like his eight steps. I think that he focuses on transformational change. It would be nice to have him address execution in a bit more detail but, as you suggest, the context really impacts what will work best in a situation. I see the two approaches coming from very different Mindsets. Six Sigma is targeted and historical micro analysis while transforamtional is macro and future focused. Knowing what to do when requires wisdom.

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