Despite how many leaders habitually approach cultural change, force is not what is needed for evolution within an organization. Intentional thought and action is needed to effectively co-create the future of any company, starting with examining the stories and patterns we fall into that have us follow purposes that don’t serve us. We must look at the chasm between where we are and where we want to go, with actionable changes in our daily behaviors to get there.


  • There is no such thing as “no culture” at an organization. Humans and culture go hand-in-hand.
  • Culture change becomes a legitimate concern either when the organizational fails to evolve or when two disparate companies or parts of a company merge together.
  • To effectively lead the evolution of a culture, first ask, “What new purposes cause our culture to be out of date?”
  • Consensus does not allow the citizens of a culture to co-author the future.
  • Co-creation is actively working with people as stewards of the culture.
  • A real steward is willing to tell the truth about the mismatch between the mindless default purpose and the one that we say we want to aspire to.
  • To change the culture, first look at what the stories and rewards are that support the present way of operating. Then see what new behaviors align with the purpose you aspire to.
  • Fish Can’t See Water; Humans Can’t See Culture

    0:33 Colin: Fish can’t see water. Just like human beings can’t see air. I’m hearing a lot about culture change and transformation. To some extent, culture is hard to see. I’ve been wondering about this notion of cultural transformation.

    1:03 Colin: We play in that space. We help people shift how the work gets done and how people connect, but at the same time we see an enormous amount of waste.

    1:27 Mickey: I feel strongly that the whole world of culture change has become over-intellectualized. Every time that happens—when people are more erudite than they are effective—they’re infecting the enterprise with waste.

    2:14 Colin: Culture always exists.People say, “There’s no culture here.” Really? That’s like fish without water, human beings without air.

    2:26 Colin: Culture is always there. You can be intentional about it or let it be how it is. The struggle is how to be intentional about it. Well-intended actions and thoughts in leadership are dangerously close to causing waste and worry, rather than this beautiful sense of “being” at work.

    The Two Causes for Why Culture Becomes a Concern

    2:27 Mickey: When culture actually comes up as a legitimate or important concern, there are two reasons why. Part of the health of any organization lives in its ability to evolve. When the organization has not evolved consist with its strategy, there is a mismatch between how works gets done and the work that needs to be done now.

    3:22 Mickey: That’s usually because the organization has been habituated to protecting its past and holding onto yesteryear without being conscious of what it’s costing them for today and tomorrow. It’s a failure to evolve. Cultures will evolve, if the people in them stay connected to their own aspiration and how they need to live and work in order to fulfill their own dreams. Organizational revolution is an act of desperation for people who are bad at evolution. Culture change is also needed when there is a failure to evolve and now the company has to deal with it and accelerate their way through the evolution or putting together two vastly different elements of an enterprise coming together to create a culture that befits the strategic reason for their marriage.

    5:08 Colin: It’s an act of morphing the culture. You don’t stop one culture and start another one. You might need a short-term engineering solution, but it has to come naturally really fast.

    Cultural Evolution as Co-Creation, Not Force

    5:32 Colin: A great culture is allowing us to be truly human and the best of who we are as human beings. Culture is not a forcing exercise; culture liberates.

    5:49 Mickey: The way that you’re able to lead the evolution of a culture where it’s an act of co-creation instead of force is to start with, “What new purposes now cause our culture to be out of date?”

    6:15 Mickey: This question fits both the first category of needing to evolve and the second of merging organizations. If you don’t get to that question first, then culture change tends to be forced. If you actually do the work to reveal the purpose of two organizations merging, what contribution to customers are you now able to make that you couldn’t make separately?

    6:54 Mickey: What new possibility are you now able to offer the world together that you couldn’t have separately? We have to take the time to get at what the purpose is that explains the cultural challenge. When you have the people who inhabit the culture who are authors of that new purpose, they will be co-creators of the new ways of working that make that purpose possible.

    7:57 Mickey: You don’t want to start without purpose. You’re trying to push a demand for behaviors into people, so you’re taking away choice. There isn’t a purpose holding everyone together, so you’re taking away community. It’s being done to people rather than something they are the authors of, so you’re taking away their opportunity to contribute.

    Consensus vs. Co-Creation

    8:17 Mickey: The idea of culture change—I don’t even like that word very much. Cultures evolve, because their reasons for existing and their aspirations evolve.

    8:31 Colin: Cultures will evolve regardless. How do you have cultures evolve on purpose? The notion of co-creation intrigues me, because a word I’m allergic to is “consensus.” Co-creation is not the same as consensus. The challenge of consensus is that you finish with the lowest common denominator that’s very rarely inspiring, even if it’s “collaborative.”

    9:07 Mickey: Consensus, like many dysfunctions, has a worthy intention buried in it, which is that we’re all in it together. The problem with consensus is that it does not require people to fully understand points of view outside of their own. To participate in consensus, all you have to do is say whether you like it or not. What is the takeaway when everyone has a power of veto? When you have some purpose at stake, and that purpose guides you instead of the opinions of individual people, you’re looking at what people are contributing that forwards the purpose.

    Stewards of Purpose

    10:10 Colin: Co-creation and consensus are often mistaken to be the same thing, which begs the question, “Does a culture need stewards or is it a naturally fulfilling process?”

    10:27 Mickey: There is the overall reason for the existence of a business or a product and inside of that there could be purposes that serve it. There do need to be people who are stewards of that purpose, because with that under the stress of reacting to the demands that are thrown at us everyday, we will lose touch with the guiding intent.

    11:19 Mickey: That is when waste gets into the system fast, because people make choices in isolated ways, in “silos,” not conscious of whether they’re helping or hurting the overall purpose.

    11:41 Mickey: The stewards are the guardians of what the guiding purposes are that you are going to stay true to and not betray. You are going to have those purposes produce value for your customers, for your investors and your colleagues. There have to be people who are devoted to the purpose and will not compromise. If you don’t have any, then that purpose isn’t real.

    Changing the Culture Starts with Seeing It

    12:14 Colin: I’m reminded of work we did a few years ago with big global sportswear company, and there was a COO there who did think of himself as the steward. He used actors who wandered around the organization and were given complete freedom to walk around anywhere. Every three months, there was a two-hour play back of the culture of all of the things that the actors had seen.

    12:54 Colin: The COO’s way of stewardship in the culture at that point was to have a way for people to see the culture. People were gobsmacked. Initially there was denial: “We don’t do that around here.” Then someone in the back of the room said, “Bullshit. That’s exactly how it is.” You could feel the room full of 50 global leaders freeze with horror, and the COO said, “I agree. Bullshit. That is what happens around here.”

    13:44 Colin: That was an instance of truth accelerating the future and possibility. If we’re clear about purpose, we’re more courageous if we see something that damages that purpose.

    14:50 Mickey: There always has to be purpose running a system or it wouldn’t stay together, but it could be default or dysfunctional purpose.

    16:20 Mickey: If you have a system that says it has a purpose and yet the results are inconsistent with it, you can bet there’s another purpose that’s ruling the system. A real steward is willing to tell the truth about the mismatch between the mindless default purpose and the one that we say we want to aspire to.

    The Stories Told About You

    16:32 Colin: Where I see people taking care of the culture, they share stories of those moments where teams talk about what they feel really good about and where they fell over and then distill the DNA of the stories. Sharing stories can be a way more potent measurement of accomplishment than surveys (well-intentioned as they are).

    17:30 Mickey: If you see that there’s a mismatch between the way work is getting done today and the way work needs to be done to fulfill a new aspiration, you have to identify what the purpose historically has been. What are the stories and rewards that support the present way of operating?

    18:02 Mickey: Everything improves by starting with what’s present. Look at the purpose that is running the place now. Then look at what the purpose is for your future that the current way of working cannot achieve.

    18:31 Mickey: As an act of co-creation, the representatives of the system come together saying, “Is that really our aspiration? Are we really here for that purpose?” If so, then what behavior does that new purpose require? You’re creating the culture standing on what your past contributes to the purpose and what you have no been reliable for that is needed today.

    19:18 Colin: The challenge is not to see culture as some artifact “over there.” Each one of us is a fractal of the culture. You bring the down the personal. What are the stories people really tell about you when you’re not in the room? And what do you want that story to be?

    20:24 Mickey: Focus on, “What new intention do we have?” Find pieces of the system that have lessons inside them that will affect the whole system. Then go make that happen, behaving the way that aspiration requires. Then let the stories unfold from that.

    20:46 Mickey: The well-placed accomplishment of a new possibility authored by people who are citizens of the system (not consultants who are brought in to change them) is the fastest way to seed and grow a culture that fits the strategy.

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