Changing culture in organizations is not  so difficult.....

Above two quotes seem contradictory but both are very true. Changing organizations without changing culture will not succeed, and at the same time, changing people without changing the organization will also not succeed. Organizational change and changing people's behavior and assumptions must go hand in hand.

This may sound obvious for many of you, but in my world (the world of Information Technology) many of us are generally more focused on solving issues and optimizing processes than on vague subjects such as culture. And that is a problem. Especially in the world of IT innovations come at high speed and we need to constantly adapt and learn new skills to be able to implement some of these innovations for the better of the whole organization.

Not such a big deal an outsider may think, this is not so different from other area's of business. However, in IT I was raised with the idea that reliability and stability are number one. And change and innovation were seen as a risk rather than an opportunity or perhaps even a must. And this is deeply rooted in the IT culture, at least in many organizations I worked for, that have struggled with legacy applications and technologies for many years.

These deeply rooted believes, assumptions and dogmas now hinder progress in the new web-era. Modern IT organizations need to be reliable, agile and innovative at the same time. People in IT should be open-minded, proactive, creative and organization-sensitive. For IT leaders there lies a task to guide their organization through a transformation: from a 'traditional' technology focused IT department to a modern IT organization that is closely intertwined with business. Culture is perhaps the most difficult aspects that must be addressed in this transformation. is specialized in culture change within IT organizations. We have learned that it is important to understand the dogma's and assumptions and dilemmas that typically exist in IT, in order to quickly put the finger on the sore spot. It is often not so difficult to explain and clarify new goals and behaviors. The real difficulty lies in the fact that people and their leaders need to give up behaviors and assumptions which they always felt were right. As a culture coach you need to have understanding of the origin of such behavior in order to be able to persuade people to leave those old assumption behind from now on. 


One years, in a mid size international company, we had successfully implemented a new call management system and at the same time decentralized the application helpdesk to the application support teams. It took some time to convince everyone in the team that our keyusers were allowed to directly contact one of the functional application managers by phone when they had a question or an issue. Most of them were ITIL trained and believed that every incident should start with a incident-ticket in the system. "We call you back if we need more information, that is easier for us", was the argument. Ignoring the fact that we are the service provider working for the users. Anyhow, after a while all went fine. The agreement was that a ticket had to be raised when the issue or question could not be solved within 5 minutes on the phone. And the (key)users were happy because they could contact someone that immediately understood their question or problem. 

Then, one year later, the company decided to outsource the helpdesk and offshore parts of the application management team. And guess what, the traditional way of working "first point of contact always via a ticket in the system" was reimplemented. "That is the way many others have implemented ITIL before", was the argument. Causing the ticket-resolution-time to go up and the user satisfaction to go down. Efficiency (not effectiveness though) of the servicedesk was the leading principle when designing the new incident management process. Not very agile or lean you would ask me, since resolution time and customer impact should be the leading principles in my view. But the old ITIL ways of working had solidified in the brain.

Above example illustrates how dogmas trapped in people's minds hinder successful transformation to high performance and agility. There are many such dogmas that stand in the way. They all have to be addressed and removed. That is the biggest challenge for any culture change.

Our approach is as follows:

We use the Competing Values Framework to determine the typology of the existing and desired culture. Next we will help you to fill in, as exact as possible, which future behavior is desired and which (new) assumptions lie at the basis for the new culture. Setting this off against existing behaviors, hidden assumption and dogmas will give an agenda for the culture interventions. The lesson here is to keep interventions small, manageable and easy to digest by the people involved. That why one should plan for a series of small and practical interventions that together add up to the desired culture change. Gartner calls these small interventions culture hacks, which is a nice way to position them in an IT environment.

One last but important remark: Diving into culture, and especially diving in hidden assumptions and dogmas, can easily release negative energy. People don't mind to philosophize about culture - as this is a vague intangible topic - but resistance comes as soon as you start to question their espoused assumptions, as those are the fundament of what they believe is right. But as Confucius said: “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.”


Christiaan. Kooijman,


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