How to Create a Culture Overhaul

This post is one of a series of posts sponsored by UPS in support of the Inc Growco Conference held April 6-8 in Las Vegas, NV

Culture is marketing. That’s my take anyway. Culture touches every part of an organization and that means it touches every part of the customer experience.

Sometimes companies come to the painful realization that what they perceive as a product or sales problem is really a culture problem. People aren’t shown how to serve, examples of shoddy work are ignored, there’s no connection to a simple mission that resonates. Consequently, the business floats aimlessly, always on the brink of the next contraction.

I had the occasion to visit with Dan Goodgame, VP of Corporate Communications for Rackspace and he recounted the story of how Rackspace founder Graham Weston came to the conclusion that their business was dead without a complete strategy change and subsequent overhaul of the culture.

“Change is hard,” that’s the message on the opening slide of Dan Heath’s presentation during his session at the Inc GrowCo Conference. Dan and his brother Chip are the coauthors of the best selling book Switch. (I interviewed Chip – Made to Switch for an episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast.)

In the book Switch, the Brothers Heath introduce the idea of the two states of human change. They portray the emotional side as an elephant and logical side as the rider. The rider mistakenly believes they are in charge and guiding the elephant, when in fact the elephant often goes where ever it wants. (Like straight to the cupcake store)

Here’s Health’s Prescription for Change:

Direct the Rider

Culture change requires strategy change at every level in the organization. People need to understand why change in coming, why it’s a good thing and how you intend to prove you’re serious about. That’s the logical part and it’s only half the deal.

The reason change is hard and why any attempt to create a culture shift in an organization will fail is because we attempt to convince the rider. The rider already has the data and knows what to do, that’s the not the issue.

Motivate the Elephant

Notice this doesn’t say talk to the rider. The elephant must be inspired and this is a tough one, particularly if you’ve taught them bad habits for years.

This step requires a radical change in mission, direction from the top and may even require changing a handful of customer and employees relationships.

But, this part will fail if you can’t define the new mission in dead simple terms. If you try to build a culture on the idea of “being more customer focused” don’t expect anything to happen.

If instead your new culture goal starts, as did Rackspace’s, with embracing the term “Fanatical Support” and then that term is driven into every communication and you start giving out the “straightjacket award” to the customer support actions that are so over the top people call them crazy.

Words and slogans are easy, finding simple ways to inhabit the words may be the hardest thing you ever do.

That’s how you start to motivate the elephant, but a word of warning, this will take great inertia and great commitment – we’re talking about an elephant here.

Culture shifts come about only through small actions repeatedly over time.

Shape the Path

Ambiguity is the enemy of change. If you’re culture shift is a desire to be much more customer focused you must develop a checklist of action steps, processes and behaviors that deliver this objective and are easy to understand.

And, you must reward people for doing them and insist that it’s now okay to fail from time to time as long as you fail in favor of a customer focused activity. The easiest way to get the change you desire is to make it for people to be successful delivering it.

You must be obsessed with dissecting every daily action into steps that collectively create the change you are seeking

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • Cindi @ Chiropractic Marketing

    Sounds like consistency and diligence is the key. However going back to the beginning of your post, “people aren’t shown how to serve”…my take is that they are shown but don’t care because it’s just a paycheck. They have no investment in the company. To me, that would be a change in culture.

    • ducttape

      I don’t know Cindi, I think most people rise to the level of example and expectation.

      • Ggayheart

        If management see change as something for employees to embrace, but not themselves, it will never happen. After a while, the blaming gets old, and the idea forgotten by all parties. That’s the core to “people aren’t shown how to serve.” Buy-in and diligence must be done from the top-down.

        • ducttape

          Yep, gotta run downhill

  • MicroSourcing

    Business owners and administrators need to see things form the common employee’s perspective if they want to ‘motivate’ the elephant. Making them feel like their chain-balled to their office desks does little by means of motivation.

    • ducttape

      Go work the phones in customer service for a while is my cure for this

  • Ad @ Search Engine Easy

    I love the elephant and rider metaphor.

    • ducttape

      Yes, it make the entire thing pretty clear doesn’t it

  • Billyc

    Echoing the sentiment — without leadership in culture development any shift, progress, or changes will not stick, even if it does happen temporarily. Employee participation is equally (if not more) important. It can come only from appropriately empowering staff. So, management has to embrace it, walk the talk, and commit resources to ensure its long-term value receives the care and feeding it needs in the organization. At Gap Adventures organizational culture is a critical part of the organization’s DNA; so much so that there is a department – Culture Club – whose purpose is to protect, energize, and develop Gap Adventures’ culture It’s important to ask if your organization really stands for what it says it stands for.

    • ducttape

      you can’t fake culture and will always flow from the example at the top, particularly in small organizations

  • Ivan Walsh

    Hi John,

    We had a big problem with this in China ie insist that it’s now okay to fail from time to time.

    Face is a big issue there – you really have to live there to grasp what it means – and workers would go to incredible lengths to cover their tracks, often undermining the project in the process.

    It took A LOT of patience to build their trust and encourage what you’re suggesting. One way was for ME to admit my mistakes – which a Chinese boss would NEVER do – and then allow them to suggest how I could improve.



  • LocalBusinessTools

    Agree, agree. I’d add that another piece is empowerment – does the elephant feel that what he does matters in order to achieve the goal? Motivation includes both understanding and then being able to connect one’s actions to the desired outcomes, don’t you think?