September 2011 | Strategy
Culture is under attack. It is currently being blamed for most implementation and execution problems. Culture “trumps everything,” it is argued, usually without the empirical evidence to back up such a claim. This argument, says Wharton management professor Larry Hrebiniak, can create a “culture trap,” a very narrow way of thinking about culture and its role in organizational problems, that can lead to poor decisions and frustrations as managers try to affect culture and culture change with the wrong methods.
Hrebiniak continues, “Culture is important; it definitely can affect behavior and performance outcomes. But it’s also important to realize that behavior and performance affect culture; culture is not only a causal factor, it’s also a dependent variable affected by other critical execution-related factors. Incentives, structures, decision processes, behaviors, people, and controls affect and shape culture. It’s important to understand these dynamic interactions to fully comprehend culture, how to manage it, and how to avoid ineffective, knee-jerk reactions to change it.”
The question then is: What’s more important — culture or the factors and conditions that affect and shape it? Hrebiniak recently gave executives in Wharton’s Strategic Thinking and Management for Competitive Advantage and Making Strategy Work: Leading Effective Execution programs a rule: To change culture, never focus solely or directly on culture.
“Appealing to managers to change behaviors, thinking, values, and beliefs rarely works. Culture-changing activities such as white-water rafting, rock climbing, paint-ball wars, sensitivity training, and other team-building exercises alone rarely have long-lasting effects. Spirits may be lifted or behavior changed for a while, but managers soon fall prey to the same old organizational structures, incentives, processes, and controls.” But if direct appeals or focus on culture don’t work, what will?
Hrebiniak, author of Making Strategy Work, stresses that to change culture, you should focus on four of the factors and conditions that affect it:
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