Cultural course corrections: Avoid the pendulum swing

June 23, 2021

By: Chris White

“We need to be more collaborative!”

“We need to be more creative!”

“We need to be more competitive!”

“We need tighter controls!”

Almost every executive with whom my company works has expressed at least one of these statements early in our work together. After all, strategic culture transformation consultants are rarely hired to keep things status quo.

To give credit where it is due, our clients are often correct with their diagnoses. The risk is that they may set off an overcorrection — a pendulum swing rather than a course correction. The danger is that the initial problem does not get addressed sustainably, and previously valuable parts of the culture are damaged. Fortunately, there is a more skillful way to think about cultural course corrections.

Good Intentions

First impressions can be misleading. Given the imperative for change, the eager executive leaps into action. They put corrective measures into place. They talk loudly and often about the urgency and importance of the change. Perhaps they introduce a series of trainings to foster a culture of teamwork or a hackathon to generate some new ideas. Maybe a team is set up to benchmark against the best practices of others in the industry. Finally, a cost-cutting mandate is put in place across the board to install greater fiscal and budgetary discipline. The necessary course correction is underway.

Initial signs may be encouraging. Following the cues of their leaders, the culture begins to lurch in the intended direction. It feels like progress is being made. Encouraged by the momentum, the leader doubles down.

Unintended Consequences

The trap is not yet visible. The problem does not lie in the progress being made. The challenge is in managing the unintended consequences. Greater creativity can come at the expense of prudent controls and vice versa. A more aggressive focus on being competitive in the marketplace can lead people to feel that their caring and collaborative environment is being dismantled and vice versa. Valuable elements of the culture get lost in the pursuit of something new.

Trouble is ahead. Perturbed by the change, bastions of the legacy culture respond. It turns out many people liked how things were. Things might even have been that way for good reason. The culture rises up to resist the changes being imposed upon them. In the face of cultural problems, as I previously discussed, people either check out, act out or walk out. Progress stalls.

Cultural Pendulum Swings

Eventually, leadership turns over in the organization. The new leaders embark on a listening tour. They hear about the need to rebalance the culture — back in the opposite direction. Quite reasonably, they are responsive to what they are hearing, and they take some steps. And so the momentum flows back in the other direction.

These are cultural pendulum swings. Everyone has experienced these roller-coaster phases in organizational life. Savvy executives are acutely sensitive to both their objectives and the unintended consequences of the intended culture changes. By far the best resource for understanding this phenomenon in organizations is the competing values framework developed by Robert Quinn and John Rohrbaug in the 1980s. This tool can help to diagnose and more skillfully change organizational culture.

Skillful Course Corrections

The right culture for one organization might be completely wrong for another. Similarly, the end goal of strategic culture transformation is rarely a perfect balance of everything, where all dimensions of the culture are equally emphasized. Rather, the focus is on identifying the culture of today and the culture that will help your organization be where you want it to be tomorrow.

With a clear picture of today and a vision for where to take the organization tomorrow, you can create a map to the future. Understanding how to lead careful course corrections instead of initiating reckless pendulum swings will help you chart a path to sustained success.

Chris White is Principal at Riverbank Consulting Group and a faculty associate at the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

The original article was published in Forbes. Copyright © 2021 by Chris White.