Skip to main content
13.09.2019 | News

Changing cultures

“There is nothing permanent except change.” This statement was supposedly made by Greek philosopher Heraclitus about 500 years ago. It is indeed valid now more than ever. In this interview, Jenny Keller, managing director of next level consulting Germany, elaborates on how change projects and corporate culture depend on each other.


What are the most common reasons why change projects (generally) fail?

I often observe three phenomena with failed change projects: Firstly, the complexity of changes is very often underestimated. In the usual sense, a project is based on the precise definition of expected results which should be delivered within a very particular time frame and a prespecified budget. But this is exactly what cannot be defined at the beginning of a project in complex situations, that is in situations which can be planned only to a limited extent. This is one reason why agile approaches have become prevalent, other reasons are regular feedback sessions and communication, a high degree of transparency, visibility of progress, and the establishment of self-autonomous teams. They all assist in avoiding common project pitfalls.

Secondly, companies try to get around the problems in change projects by means of a higher degree of self-responsibility granted among employees: weak leadership. Studies prove that many change projects fail because of inadequate commitment, disagreement on higher management level, a lack of support from middle management level, and a lack of experience in dealing with uncertainties among employees. But it is often overlooked that this new role of management in agile working contexts, the so-called “servant leadership” principle, that is the support and encouragement of employees, has to be learned first. To put it in change specialist Klaus Doppler’s words: Managers have to change “from dignitaries to player-managers”.

Thirdly, change projects focus on various aspects of structure, that is organisational structures and its processes. But changes are in fact multi-layered: On the one side, there are social and human aspects to be considered, for instance needs, feelings, fears, prejudice, but also employee’s competences, the organisational political orientation with its power structures, internal and external competition, and scarcity of resources. On the other side, there are symbolic aspects to concentrate on, like the importance and role of employees, their beliefs, rituals, values, stories, and culture. These complexities demonstrate that we have to face and deal with these chaotic, complicated, complex, and ambiguous conditions within companies.

To what extent is corporate culture connected with change projects?

The American Management Consultant Spencer Johnson once presented a useful parable: Two mice and two midgets set out to search for cheese in a labyrinth every day. One day, all four of them get to a place, where they find huge stocks of cheese. The midgets are over the moon with their discovery and get lazier and lazier every day. The mice are also very happy about their findings, but in case they run out of cheese, they prepare themselves to search for cheese again. Surprisingly one day, the cheese is gone. The mice do not hesitate and go out to search for some new cheese. The midgets are concerned about the unfairness of their disappeared cheese, and they decide to wait for it, hoping the cheese would come back.

In volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambivalent contexts, in which companies operate today, companies with the described mindset of midgets will not survive for long, because changes are daily business. It is all about getting managers and employees intrigued by changes and to make fast and flexible adjustments possible to allow changes to happen.

Corporate culture as such is subject to constant transformation. What can the higher management level usefully contribute to a positive corporate culture?

What does “a positive corporate culture” even mean? In order to be successful, corporate cultures have to differ from each other based on the company’s business area and strategy. This way, companies which are guided by market conditions also orientate themselves and their corporate culture towards outside conditions, for instance towards a strong focus on customers. However, organisations which rely entirely on internal processes and structures, for examples schools, focus on optimising internal processes rather than on mutual internal standards of quality. But management theorist Peter Drucker claims that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, which basically means that corporate culture is strong enough to prevent the implementation of a strategy that does not correspond with that culture. The other way around we can also observe that if a strong corporate culture is well adapted to the strategy, organisational success can be increased. The bottom line is that the higher management level has to carefully pay attention to a fine-tuned balance between corporate culture and strategy. If they consider a cultural change as necessary, it is of utmost importance to clarify and communicate that cultural change is as significant as other important tasks or requirements, which are promoted within the organisation. This approach demands for an understandable corporate vision and successful communication of the necessity of cultural changes.

Is it actually reasonable to have ONE corporate culture, or are multiple cultures more desirable?

Besides individual distinctive features that each company has, there are of course distinct requirements and ranges of tasks in single business areas, departments or even teams. This means that the sales department has a different mentality than the development department, accounting or marketing – and this is good and reasonable. The controlling depart might render a company more successful if it convinces sales people that not every deal has to be a success, but only those deals that prove themselves profitable to the company. This is what “uncontrolled” sales activities would not be able to achieve by themselves. Comprehensive guidelines towards corporate culture are the compass that point the way towards a better realisation of corporate culture. Moreover, an organisation benefits from considering how the culture within a team (e.g. a department) should ideally look like to contribute as best as possible to the company’s success. For this to happen, the team should obligatorily analyse and integrate the views of internal and external customers.

next level holding GmbH.

Floridsdorfer Hauptstrasse 1, 1210 Vienna

Tel: +43/1/478 06 60-0

Fax: +43/1/478 06 60-60