You can’t change culture; you can’t change attitudes - IEDP
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You can’t change culture; you can’t change attitudes

So focus on right behaviours and actions to shift attitudes


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Sustainable change is something of an oxymoron, the notion of creating an environment of change that stays the same. Nonetheless it is a main theme of many organisational development departments linked as it is to the notions of innovation, flexibility, adaptability that all companies now need to have to cope with the complex, fast-moving commercial environment.

Last week Benchmark for Business brought together two leading thinkers in this area, Michael Watkins, chairman of Genesis Advisers and Dan Heath, a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE).

Watkins is best known for his hugely successful first book “The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels” published in 2003. He is a world leader in management transitions having studied  Johnson & Johnson closely in the late 1990’s while at Harvard Business School and since worked closely with many other major companies while at INSEAD, IMD and for the last four years with his own business, Genesis Advisers.

Over recent years Watkins has shifted his focus from the actions individuals can take to improve their chances of success when moving into a new role, whether that be an internal or external move, to what organisations can do to improve the environment for success for such transitions. As with so many leadership and organisational change frameworks the solution requires effecting the right culture for change to occur in.

What Watkins’ studies have produced is a theory that makes clear “you can’t change culture; you can’t change attitudes; you have to focus on actions.” As Watkins explains “culture is an emergent phenomenon, so focus on right behaviours; behaviour shifts attitudes; and right behaviours come from the right structures and processes, and the right goals and influences.”

So to affect change in culture and attitudes you need to concentrate on the three key levers of change: goals and incentives (clear, aligned incentives, ruthlessly enforced – removing any blockers if necessary); social influence (role-modeling, opinion leaders – and celebrating champions and early wins); structure and process (simplify accountability lines, integrate processes and mechanisms).

From the intangible concepts of trying to change culture and behaviour Watkins research has shown that using these much better understood and implementable ‘hard’ actions change can be achieved – and sustained.

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