Why efforts to change a culture may fail

Why efforts to change a culture may fail

Geese_John MayerIn the previous post, I wrote that the biggest reason that organizational culture initiatives fall flat is our failure to make them a central element of the corporate agenda. Building or changing cultures is a long-term effort, more a marathon than a quick sprint. As such, the most important thing we can do is simply stay on the path and maintain our focus.

Changing any organization’s culture means telling and living new stories, and ensuring that the group’s members find meaning in those stories. As such, one must take great care to make sure that the new stories ring true, and that the key people emulate them in their everyday behavior. The term I use for this phenomenon is “embodying the story”.

One of my favorite tales of a culture initiative that missed because of failure to embody the story is that of IBM’s Thomas Watson Jr. and the “wild ducks”.

I should emphasize that I relate this anecdote not to criticize Mr. Watson but merely to make a point about storytelling and corporate culture. In fact, Thomas Watson Jr. is considered one of the outstanding CEOs of the past centuryFortune magazine once called him “the greatest capitalist who ever lived.”

Mr. Watson led IBM through the company’s most explosive period of growth. When he became Chief Executive Officer in 1956, IBM employed 72,500 people and had a gross income of $892 million. When he stepped down in 1971, employees numbered more than 270,000 and gross revenue was $8.3 billion. Under his guidance, IBM grew from a medium-sized business to one of the dozen largest industrial corporations in the world.

Watson’s tenure coincided with a time of significant disruption and turbulence in the marketplace for office equipment. His leadership helped IBM transition from the era of typewriters and mechanical tabulators into the computer age, where it would become the industry’s dominant player worldwide.

Even the most successful leaders make missteps, though, and Watson’s attempt to encourage “wild duck” behavior among his charges was probably misguided.

The wild duck parable is drawn from the work of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who told of a man who fed the ducks in Denmark as they flew south at the onset of winter. In fact, in Kierkegaard’s fable, the birds in question were geese, not ducks. Of course, this distinction does not change the essence of the story; I only mention it for those who might be tempted to search Kierkegaard’s writings to find it.

After a while some of the birds no longer bothered to fly south. They wintered in Denmark, surviving on the easy nourishment that their benefactor offered them. Consequently, with the passage of time, these sedentary ducks flew less and less. Eventually, they grew so fat and lazy that they found it difficult to fly at all.

When Tom Watson Jr. took over as CEO, he told employees that he would welcome an attitude of “wild ducks”, to bring fresh thinking into the company. He used the fable in a variety of contexts, in particular when encouraging employees not to lose their creativity, drive, and independence. He urged mid-level managers to use their imaginations, and to take the initiative rather than ask continuously for approval from the home office.

In the book IBM and the Computer Revolution, Robert Sobel quotes Watson on his ducks theme: “We are convinced that every business needs its wild ducks, and in IBM we try not to tame them.” Early in his tenure, the CEO sought to push his people, to encourage constructive conflict, even controversy: “I just wish somebody would stick his head in my office and say, ‘Tom, you’re wrong!’ I really would like to hear that. I don’t want yes-men around me.”

Those who took him literally, however, found that Watson had a gruff, temperamental, even arrogant side. In fact, his often harsh reactions led to the emergence of a counter-story that spread throughout the company. Employees remarked that one should be very careful when sticking one’s head inside the CEO’s office, lest it be cut off!

In the end, the computer giant’s corporate culture emphasized conformity to such an extent that any “wild duck” behavior found scant acceptance. Since Watson did not embody his story with his own behavior, workers became cynical, treating the novel “wild duck policy” as more rhetoric than reality.

 Image: Flickr-user John Mayer

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