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Changing company culture requires a movement, not a mandate

JANUARY 12, 2018
Organizations that are seeking to become more adaptive and innovative often struggle with company culture change. Brian Walker and Sarah Soule argue that leaders can learn a lot from the practices of skillful movement makers. And they offer detailed advice on how to go about it.

“Innovation demands new behaviors from leaders and employees that are often antithetical to company cultures, which are historically focused on operational excellence and efficiency,” Sarah Soule, professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says.

She introduces a beautiful and telling metaphor to illustrate the pervasiveness of company culture: “Culture is like the wind. It is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt. When it is blowing in your direction, it makes for smooth sailing. When it is blowing against you, everything is more difficult”.


Hence, true culture change cannot be achieved in a top-down manner. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perceptions. “Someone with authority can demand compliance, but they can’t dictate optimism, trust, conviction, or creativity,” she emphasizes.

Brian Walker, manager director at IDEO, elaborates, “At IDEO, we believe that the most significant change often comes through social movements, and that despite the differences between private enterprises and society, leaders can learn from how these initiators engage and mobilize the masses to institutionalize new societal norms.”

Hence, any real change in company culture is preceded by a journey to align and galvanize all employees. And in order to gain insight into what that means, we need to better understand movements.

“Culture is like the wind. It is invisible.” – Sarah Soule, professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business


“We often think of movements as starting with a call to action. But movement research suggests that they actually start with emotion – a diffuse dissatisfaction with the status quo and a broad sense that the current institutions and power structures of the society will not address the problem,” Brian Walker argues.

“This brewing discontent turns into a movement when a voice arises that provides a positive vision and a path forward that’s within the power of the crowd,” he adds. “What’s more, social movements typically start small. They begin with a group of passionate enthusiasts who deliver a few modest wins. Eventually, in successful movements, leaders leverage their momentum and influence to institutionalize the change in the formal power structures and rules of society.”


That said, leaders can learn a lot from the practices of skillful movement makers. The authors offer detailed advice on what to look for. Their most important argument: don’t shy away from organizational friction.

“In a movements-based approach to change, a moderate amount of friction is positive,” they stress. “A complete absence of friction probably means that little is actually changing. Look for the places where the movement faces resistance and experiences friction. They often indicate where the dominant organizational design and culture may need to evolve.”


And remember that culture change only happens when people take action. So start there, “While articulating a mission and changing company structures are important, it’s often a more successful approach to tackle those sorts of issues after you’ve been able to show people the change you want to see.”

Interested to stay up to date?

For more specifics and pointers on how to build your in-company movement, read the full article.