Building culture in a new organization vs ‘mending’ culture in an existing organization

13 June 2017, Jelena Fedurko-Cohen

I want to share some discussions that we had during Tribute to Eli, two days ago, 11 June 2017, when people from many countries came to the Goldratt House in Bene Atarot, in the suburb of Tel Aviv, to share memories and celebrate legacy of the man that has touched so many lives. It was a great day, with the atmosphere full of warmth and light. Tribute speeches and discussions were dedicated to Eli, his impact, his legacy. As it happens when people know each other for many years and share professional interests and passion, the day was very intense with discussions, moving from one subject to another with the central line being how to strengthen the way TOC helps people make significant improvements in their systems and individual lives.

I want to share here a part of discussion that Dr. Shoshi Reiter and I had after Eli’s memorial. We were looking into challenges of managing projects in cluster organizations and eventually moved to discuss whether there is difference between building culture in a new organization versus ‘mending’ culture, i.e. changing a part of culture that malfunctions for the one that works properly’. Is it so that when a new organization starts building culture the starting point it ‘Zero’, while ‘mending’ culture in an existing organization starts from ‘Minus’?

This question opens a subject of change in an organization and behaviour of people in response to change.

I want to share here an extract from my article Whatever We Do or Say Is for a Purpose from the book Leading People Through Change, 2011. It was a third book of the series of Goldratt Schools books on TOC that we published within 2010-2011. Leading People Through Change came out just a few weeks before Eli passed away. He was happy to see it.

The subject of our discussion yesterday, whether there is difference in people’s behaviour when ‘fresh’ culture being built in a new organization versus a instituting change in the current culture falls into the two types of change and corresponding behaviour that I described in my article:

From the point of view of people’s attitudes and behaviour, we can distinguish between two types of change:

  • the change that people seek themselves, or “dream about”, or work towards getting, and
  • the change that is imposed from outside and people have to do something about it.

The key difference is in the perception and expectation of a person regarding the outcome that the change will bring for them personally – benefits or negative outcomes.

When we look at the first type – the change that people seek themselves, there are two main states in which people find themselves:

  1. I do not want any longer what I have now”, and
  2. I want THAT (something specific).”

When it is the “I do not want any longer” state, very often a person has no clear understanding of what it is that s/he wants.  Usually, it is just a realization of being dissatisfied with the current state of things, and a wish to change it.  However, the person does not know, or is indecisive of, what to change to. In other words, a person seeks change, but has no clear vision of the direction in which to go.  There is no clear and well-formed vision of the desired change’s outcome and no understanding of how to achieve it.

It seems easier for a person in the “I want THAT” state, as there is a vision or understanding of what it is a person wants.  There are people who intuitively know, or have been trained in how to determine, the desired outcome, to set the goals to achieve it, and have the mechanism to assess whether they are moving in the right direction.  If they are not, they know what corrective actions they should take.

However, we should not forget that the ‘THAT’ is only perception.  If the hopes are too high and the reality turns out to be different, it may result in disappointment, frustration and the bitterness of being disillusioned.

So, even handling the change that people want themselves is not that straightforward.

Dealing with the change that is imposed from outside is truly challenging

People are naturally cautious about the change that was not initiated or desired by them – about what it will bring.  They need time to think about it and decide whether they like it or not.  Often the immediate concern would be that the change planned by someone else will bring disturbance to the person’s everyday life – routine, work, daily activities – and will result in additional load.  As a rule this concern is justified because any change demands an effort.

With the imposed change, there are different change-related conditions:

  1. A person has no influence over the decision to make the change, and no choice of not accepting it without physically moving themselves out of the changed environment. However, this would often be impossible or too big a move to undertake only because they dislike the situation. In this case, people learn to behave in line with the change.
  2. People can ignore the change – both at the stage when the system is just considering the change, as well as after the decision about the change implementation is made. When saying “people can ignore”, I mean that the system does not have the control mechanism to ensure the change implementation, or is not employing it.  If this is the case, the sequence of events and efforts that the system’s owners or managers pursue does not matter (whether they first promote the change and then make the official decision about its implementation, or the other way around).  Any change requires an effort.  If people do not want it, and can refrain from making the effort that they see as imposed on them, then this is what is most likely going to happen.  What we often see then is a few enthusiasts personally excited about the change and pushing for it, and the majority who are trying to avoid the disturbance and extra effort that they associate with the imposed change.

Back to the subject whether there is difference in people’s attitude to change when building culture in a new organization versus ‘mending’ culture in an existing organization.

I do not think that there is difference that is driven by the ‘age’ of an organization – whether it is new or has been operating for enough time to have its culture firmly shaped. In both cases each organization will have two groups of people – those that will see the change as an/the answer to what they have desired to find, and those that will see the change as imposed on them. Therefore, ‘Zero’ or ‘Minus’ as a starting point does not depend on whether an organization is new or an existing one.

It is true that an existing organization does have ‘a habit’ of doing and looking at things in a certain way. However, I do not think that it is this ‘habit’ that dictates attitude to change. It is how people interpret the change – as desired or as imposed. In a new organization there will be no such habit yet. This seems to support an idea of a ‘Zero’ starting point for a new organization. However, when people join a new organization, they have certain expectations towards various aspects of the company, including its culture. If the promoted culture meets their perception of what they want, they will support it, if it does not – it creates the ‘Minus’.

My experience says that regardless the ‘age’ of an organization – it is always a combination of starting from ‘Zero’ (or ’Plus’) and starting from ‘Minus’. The starting point ‘Zero/Plus’ is with those in an organization for whom the change is a natural answer to their “I want THAT!”. The starting point ‘Minus’ is with those that perceive the change as imposed. The latter splits into two subgroups. One does not want ANY change at all.  They either do not see the problem the promoted change removes (Layer 1 of 6 Layers of Resistance), or they fear negative outcomes (Layer 4 – NBR). The second subgroup is composed of those who want a DIFFERENT change. In other words, their direction of solution is different from the one that is promoted by the management (Layer 2).

The techniques of instituting a new culture vs a different feature in an existing culture will differ not on the basis of the organization’s ‘age’ or absence/presence of a ‘habit’, but on the basis of people’s perception of change. Hence, both in a new and in an existing organization a change agent needs to simultaneously employ two sets of techniques to handle two different groups of people.

Shoshi, thank you for the great discussion we had.


Jelena Fedurko-Cohen, 13 June 2017

1 reply
  1. Eli Schragenheim
    Eli Schragenheim says:

    Jelena this is an important post with many insights about implementing a change. Building or mending a culture is a special case. I took from Wikipedia the following brief definition: Organizational culture encompasses values and behaviours that “contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization”. The point is that culture describes feelings of the people coming to work, not just the formal processes that they have to follow.

    A new organization has to choose its members, and the choice is part of building the appropriate culture. The decision of people to join the organization is partially based on their perception of the new culture to be created.

    Changing an existing culture is a HUGE change. You rightfully mentioned that some of the employees might feel caught in a cultural change they don’t want, but to resign is a too big scary move. Changing a culture cannot be successfully done only through management decisions and control mechanism. To my understanding changing the norms of behaviour and shared values, which are pretty hard to force.

    I’m not certain that implementing TOC can be defined as a change in the culture. First it is a change in some specific processes, and maybe this change would open the door for cultural changes like: taking more holistic responsibilities, telling the truth and more care for the organization as a whole. These could be the desired cultural outcomes, but I don’t think it is a part of the formal implementation of some TOC rules.

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