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Change Management

Culture: The iceberg that sinks organizational change

This is a really great infographic from Torben Rick:

“Culture: The iceberg that sinks organizational change”.

This infographic describes what really goes on vs what we think happens! The culture of the organisation that exists beneath the surface and dictates how people react and go about things. (Click the graphic to link to Torben’s original article).

The iceberg that sinks organizational change

Many organisations push change down from the top and then expect it to stick, but what often happens is that the moment they stop pushing the change things revert back to the previous state. This is because they have failed to change the underlying culture, the organisational norms within the organisation, the piece of the iceberg below the surface that gets forgotten (see the infographic above).

How can I change the Culture?

“Changing an organization’s culture is one of the most difficult leadership challenges. That’s because an organization’s culture comprises an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions. These elements fit together as a mutually reinforcing system and combine to prevent any attempt to change it.” (Culture: The iceberg that sinks organisational change -Torben Rick)

“You can’t “do” culture change to your organization. Culture arises from the beliefs and underlying assumptions held by the people in the organization. Trying to change culture by decree or through training programs won’t affect people’s beliefs.” (3 Approaches to Culture Change: What Works – Jesse Lyn Stoner)

Change pushed down from the top (often called Planned or Top-Down change) is not enough, it needs to be reinforced by cultural change from the bottom (often called Emergent or Bottom-Up change). As Torben’s iceberg above demonstrates this is what sinks many change projects.

Change Iceberg - Torben Rick - with overlayLet’s start with some basics……. This well known HBR article by Beer & Nohria – “Cracking the Code of Change” defines two types of change – top down (or planned) and bottom up (or emergent) (see my article Cracking the Code of Change for more information).

Emergent or Bottom-Up change is more participative in nature and allows the employees to define the change, thus making the end result more emergent. In this type of change the Management can only put in place appropriate circumstances and guidelines to encourage the change, they have limited ability to control or manage it. The type of change that results develops the organisations capability and can also change the culture. Whilst being difficult to control, this type of change has the ability to deliver substantial benefit to the company, leading to long term results and strengthening of the enterprise. However, culture change can be unpredictable and can also deliver unexpected side-effects.

Beer & Nohria warn that it is important to avoid trying to implement both types of change simultaneously as there is an inherent conflict between the two, with Top Down change often destroying organisational capability as the organisation restructures, whilst the Bottom Up type change is trying to build it. Many of the most successful changes have combined the two approaches by seeking short term gains via a planned change, and then using a longer term emergent approach to reinforce it, embed it in the culture and increase the organisational capability.

How do I start an Emergent or Bottom-Up Change?

By its very nature Bottom-Up change needs to be driven by the staff, this is pretty scary for senior management.

  1. The first step is to use the Top-Down change approach driven by Senior Management to start things moving, frame up the change and provide the context.
  2. Next, identify the change agents across the organisation who can help drive the change at the working level.
  3. Get people involved, empower work groups to work on specific problems related to the change.
    • This can be a number of small grass roots work groups, or
    • Jesse Lyn Stoner suggests using a “Large groups slice” approach with a cross section of people coming together
    • Both these approaches are described in more detail in Jesse Lyn’s article
  4. Use the Change Agents as Catalysts to encourage change and build these work groups.
  5. Publicise these grass roots efforts, or better still let the groups publicise them.
  6. Build on these early wins and get more people involved and empower them to take action as well.
  7. Repeat this, and keep encouraging the change, within the guidelines that have been established.
  8. Do not give up, keep going!

The critical thing is to ensure that the staff feel ownership and empowered, this is what will start to change the culture.

Need more? See this great article by Jim Clemmer on Balancing Top-Down and Bottom-Up Change Processes. For a great example see this AT Kearney article where they used a Top-Down approach to frame-up the change and provide the guidance, coupled with a Bottom-Up approach to get the buy-in and ownership at the grass roots level.

The Bottom-Line

Change is HARD! But if you start with a top down change and then use a bottom-up approach to anchor it in the culture you have a far better chance of success.


Related articles:

Change Management (Part 1) – Cracking the Code of Change
Change Management (Part 2) – Step Models of Change
Change Management (Part 3a) – Change Capability
Change Management (Part 3b) – Success with IT Change
Change Management – What’s in a Name?
Why are IT projects Change Management time bombs?
The Importance of Change Leadership – Beyond “Step Models of Change”
What Change Management approach should I choose?
Beer & Nohria – “Cracking the Code of Change
Lewin’s (1951) original 3-step model of “Unfreeze-Move-Refreeze”
John Kotter – “Leading Change”
Martin Webster’s blog
Change Management Blog
The five motivators of successful change by Barbara Kivowitz


10 thoughts on “Culture: The iceberg that sinks organizational change

  1. Reblogged this on Martin Davis' Blog and commented:

    Many change actions fail due to the hidden aspects of culture – this infographic helps provides some great insight.


    Posted by Martin | June 9, 2016, 3:43 pm


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