Culture bites! And bites hard: The key importance of embracing culture in organisational change


By Professor James McCalman and Dr David Potter

Culture really does matter. How an organisation does things makes the difference in the competitive world. The culture of the organisation is the most significant strategic variable that executive leaders need to manage effectively. As Drucker used to say, “Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast!”

Why is this important?

The degree of change required in many organisations involves cultural transformation. There is a need for a greater understanding of cultural change work to appreciate the dynamics and the problems of leading cultural change work. One needs to understand the theory of culture and especially organisational development (OD) methods drawn from the behavioral sciences. Managers operating at every level need to be able to critically reflect on the underlying assumptions regarding their ability to influence change in an organisation. Changing culture is ultimately concerned with leadership and power issues, and this book considers change management in these terms.

Why culture controls organisational expression

In our book Leading Cultural Change we assert culture can be changed in a managed way. It is correlated with the idea of the learning organisation in the sense that all change involves new learning at the level of the individual, the group and the intergroup. We simply don’t know enough about the processes of cultural change and what we also want to call for are more longitudinal studies that explain change in these terms. There is little doubt that organisations, when they embark on change initiatives, should consider the cultural dimension. Our research aims to make a contribution to expanding the change manager’s knowledge of the cultural concept in relation to strategic organisational development.

Organisational Culture and Managers

It is widely understood that when a change strategy is incompatible with the culture of the organisation, the strategy fails. Managers can find themselves trapped within their current market dynamics, unable to escape the clutches and influence of established cultural paradigms as they try to navigate serious strategic change. As a consequence they need to have some kind of developed conceptual and practical framework for both understanding organisational culture and for working with its dynamic processes. Culture controls expression, and how organisational members express themselves impacts the strategic potential of the organisation.

Many popular management books are ‘how to’ sequential and ostensibly common-sense approaches supported with heroic vignettes of Chief Executives who transformed ‘weak’ cultures into winning ‘strong’ cultures. Such populism lacks theoretical power and airbrushes over the harsh complexity and subsequent difficulties. As a result practitioners remain largely ignorant about the concept of culture, its dynamics and how one could set about trying to describe it and then change it. Our work sets out to explain what culture is, how it forms, how one can analyse it, the difficulties associated with changing it, and a broad review of the literature relevant to organisational cultural change.

This piece is based on Leading Cultural Change which is available from Kogan Page

Leading Cultural Change offers a blend of theory and practice to enable smarter decisions and actions in relation to cultural change activities. It aims to help the reader understand the significance and importance of the socio/cultural context of organizations.


Professor James McCalman

Director of the Centre for Strategy and Leadership of Portsmouth Business School, University of Portsmouth

Professor McCalman is a senior academic with executive and leadership experience in the private, charity and higher education sectors. He has driven several change/transformation projects and gained wide experience of management and postgraduate teaching in the UK, Europe, Southeast Asia and the United States.