Rapid culture change ? Oxymoron alert!

This is a true story.

I was having a serious discussion with a vice-president from an international company I respect enormously. Knowing someone for decades puts you in a position to ask real questions and allows you to get real answers. No reason to doubt anything about what was being said.

I was curious, being a consultant in a company of 1.5 person and outsourcing to other consultants when mandates are too big, how could my counsel be used in a large firm such as his? After all, a single mandate with his firm would occupy a good portion of my time and effort for a year or more. For a small consultant company is it both exciting and frightening. 

But at the same time, looking at their situation from outside, I knew i could contribute to their success. I could hear complaints from inside during networking events, from former colleagues who were now working there, from former employees who were now my clients, etc., etc.

Our relationship allowed me to be direct: 

How can I hope to be able to present a proposal to your high-ranking colleagues?

The response was as direct and swift: promise us a rapid culture change.


Always keeping in mind that we have known each other over 20 years I replied, “Come on, those words do not go together!”

“Oh not a complete change, but visible change within a year.”

This was a few years ago and his words have not stopped haunting me.

How can anyone, including my very good and smart friend, believe that a culture change could be rapid? And sustainable?

Another quote also resounds in my mind when I hear such request.

“With people, fast is slow and slow is fast.”

Stephen Covey, author of numerous best-sellers on effectiveness and sense making.

 Olivier Zara, author of Paradoxal Management, and Counter Intuitive Management, says the same thing using different words and concepts. But basically he advocates spending time consulting, explaining and discussing before implementing any change. Ah, yes, and using collective intelligence at all times. This, although seemingly time consuming, saves so much effort in arguing, explaining and discussing after the fact to try to implement the change that has been resisted by all … the expedite change that had to be completed to reach our annual goal, to fulfill those objectives and other bonus -related KPI.

Spending time before instead of wasting so much time and effort after…

The bigger the expected change, the longer it will take.

How long can a change initiative take? As long as it takes!

Most change management initiatives fail according to most experts. Numbers vary but the conclusion is the same: most agree on a 30% success rate.

When a C-level executive asks for more initiative, more innovation, etc. he is basically asking for a profound change in his/her organization. And he/she, and his/her colleagues are at the heart of it. At the heart of the resistance too!

Any change, ANY change of that magnitude will endanger their turf, their power relation to one another. If their organization lacks trust, innovation, initiative and motivation it is first and foremost because the environment internal and external is such that the only way to survive is such an environment was to adapt to it and to make sure any action fit perfectly the expectation. The only way to avoid mistakes and be fired is to do … nothing at all.

The only way to avoid massive law suits NOT to launch a potentially great product with its potentially side effect nobody knew about.

Mention that recent wonder drug for weight loss, that new phone with an exploding battery, that new self-driving car…

Do this once and the whole industry stops to a stand still … unless, someone is willing to risk innovation once again. Microsoft and RIM (Blackberry) CEOs laughed when they saw the first iPhone … not for long.

Humans are fantastic when it is time to adapt to any situation. The same lazy, slow, uncaring and unmotivated employees suddenly come to life when they punch out and go home to become

president of their local soccer club

amazing fund raiser for their favorite charity organization

amateur musician

wonderful and caring father.



Because their job environment sent a clear message. Adapt or die. Do as you’re told, follow the rules.

Rules dictated by the top management. Subtle messages conveyed through the grapevine after hearing the annual objectives that trickle down the organization: we must make our numbers!

Most large organizations manage by numbers … at all costs! Too many forgot their initial mission, their “why” according to Simon Sinek. Most C-level exec will deny this, of course, but the famous social psychological experiments of Milgram and The Standford Prison demonstrated that human beings are quite responsive to authority. Especially if they think their job of life is in danger. It does not take much for a whole crew to change direction rapidly when they hear subtle message about “cutting costs,” “improving outcomes,” “increasing output” etc.

Imagine if the C-level exec is a bully on top of that, ruling by fear and autocracy!

But going back to the original request: A rapid culture change. 


Ever tried to lose weight? A massive mount of weight.

There are only two ways to achieve this.

Strategy #1

  1. Liposuction to remove the current weight.
  2. Partial Gastrectomy or other bariatric procedure to prevent future intake
  3. Liquid diet for a while then back to almost normal food in reduced portion

This will work for a few years if you continue to eat less and better. But, failing to do this and going back to their old habit … increased weight will also be back.

Fast results, expensive, painful and probably recurrent.

Strategy #2

  1. Change your diet
  2. Reduce your servings
  3. Exercise more
  4. Control stress and sleep better
  5. Repeat forever.

Slow results, less expensive (you do eat less after all!), probably sustainable.

In both cases, discussions about the desired new state must occur. At all levels of the organization.. er … the family.

Back to the organization

Strategy #2: 

1- Create a safe place to discuss

2- Discuss the reason for the change, the market pressure, the possible solution 

3- Answer to all the questions from all the employees. Yes… ALL until there are no more.

4- Discuss how can the change be done, with whom, etc.

5- Discover the desire to change 

6- Implement small changes

7- Plan, Do, Check, Act and repeat! ( Deming was right after all)

8- All together


Strategy #1

1- Fire the C-level executives responsible for the previous environment (respecting their parachute clause, of course … this might be expensive…)

2- Have your employees vote for the new C-Suite members

3- Remove individual bonus and replace with profit-sharing for all

4- Listen and implement for new ways of working

5- Repeat as required.

Et voilà… rapid culture change.

Yep. This might work. For a time.

Or not.

I strongly believe that “rapid culture change” is an oxymoron.

There are more and more examples of sensible culture change around the world. Huge companies embracing new ways of working together and reaping huge profits too! 

It IS possible.

But it starts with the C-Level. No need to fire them all. 

BUT … but a massive paradigm change is in order.

Are you ready for this?

Try this, I call it the laterality index, in honour of Edward De Bono (lateral thinking) and Dave Snowden (The Cynefin complexity model)

How high is the pressure to change? From 1–10

How strong is your desire to change? From 1–10

How ready are you to adopt radically different management perspective (e.g. voting for the manager, president, etc.)? From 1–10

Multiply the 3 values. Over 125? 

You might be ready to change.

The first step might be to test your resolve in safe grounds with colleagues willing to learn together. 

Join us at the Collectif de Réflexion sur l’Organisation Intelligente !

In the meantime, think about what is preventing you from starting the culture change you have in mind.

Are YOU a deterrent for this change or an example to follow?


Crédit photo : Jérôme Prax sur Unsplash