Don’t Change Culture. Create It.


Everybody loves success. Nobody likes to change.

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, wrote about this almost two decades ago. He argued that as a company (or team) matures, three areas affect its capacity to handle change: resources, processes, and values.

Christensen suggests that when businesses start with the question “What should (or can) we do?” they first look at resources, both tangible (people, equipment, technologies) and less tangible (ideas, designs, and brands).

As success takes root, the business must scale these resources, so it creates processes – codified means of interacting, communicating, and making decisions. Processes make activities efficient and repeatable. These processes become ingrained and get associated with the company’s values.

Finally, once team members “follow processes and decide priorities by assumption rather than by conscious choice, those processes and values come to constitute the organization’s culture.”

This is why revolutionary change is so difficult. Once culture is established, it’s virtually impossible to change. As Christensen wrote, “Despite beliefs spawned by popular change-management and reengineering programs, processes are not nearly as flexible or adaptable as resources are.”

Put simply: To bring about innovative change, don’t try to change the culture by disrupting processes and access to resources.

If you want culture to change, you have to create a new one from scratch.

I see this time and again with our clients’ implementation of new content marketing teams and strategy. I just worked with a B2B client in the financial services space who was trying to create a new content marketing function in its existing business. As initially planned, the existing digital and PR teams would launch new content platforms to build audiences.

But the firm’s existing processes and values only supported the idea of centering all digital efforts on its website and using paid and earned media to drive more eyeballs to the website. Ultimately, it wasn’t until the company created a new “content innovation team” with access to new resources, and the creation of new processes that new values began to form. They didn’t change the existing culture. They created a new one.

Christensen says there are only three ways to drive disruptive change successfully:

1. Create a new team within your existing business, in which new processes can be built

2. Spin an existing team out of your organization and give it the ability to create new processes and values

3. Acquire a different team, whose processes and values are different but aligned with your business goals

One of the reasons content as a strategic function is so difficult to deploy is that skilled people are assigned to work in existing cultures where the processes and values aren’t designed for this kind of thinking.

The saying “Don’t ship the org chart,” (attributed Steven Sinofsky, former head of Microsoft’s Windows division), is generally heard as a reminder to design your products and communications to be customer-centric, and not a reflection of your internal organizational structure. But shipping the org chart is almost unavoidable. What Sinofsky is really saying is you should make sure your organization is designed to deliver a customer-centric experience.

A strong corporate culture simply reflects what teammates believe about each other. Instead of trying to change those beliefs, we need to give them new things to believe in.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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