Let’s not talk about culture change!

The term “cultural change” is treated by some executives only with keen fingers, and many employees don’t really know what this “cultural change” could actually be about. They sense: Something has to change in my company, but what exactly? Has this term – “culture change” – perhaps already been burned? And what could we use instead?

On the one hand, “cultural change” describes a profound, ongoing process that requires resources and changes the DNA of a company like no other. “Cultural change” is the one process in which the management level also has to play a role in transforming a company: a new understanding of leadership – asking questions instead of knowing everything, making teams more diverse and empowering them to make decisions themselves, delegate and trust – new structures, new organizational patterns. “Cultural change” is the prerequisite for successful innovation. In his innovation zine, Johannes Klingebiel writes: “If an innovation is to be successful, it always needs a simultaneous structural change.” In this context, he quotes from Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses” book: “You can’t design a transformative service, without redesigning the organization.”

On the other hand, “culture change” is a soft term that can be interpreted at will and delegated away as an action, along the lines of: “Oh, and this culture change, you’re all doing it now, dear employees”. The phantom of “culture change” that gives hope for change (or fear of it) but is not really tangible or measurable. The “cultural change” is tripping itself up because like a pudding it doesn’t want to stick to the wall.

Perhaps we should therefore describe the necessary process differently, by naming it after its goal. But what is the goal of culture change? This can certainly be discussed at length and academically. For me, a culture change ultimately aims at a corporate culture and structure that allows you to continue to operate successfully on the market. In the complex, volatile, insecure VUCA world, this means being able to react quickly and adequately to unknown challenges.

So: A cultural change takes place (not only, but above all) within a company – but only so that challenges from outside can be mastered. In this respect, from my point of view, cultural change is actually about achieving the state that is described as “cultural intelligence” with regard to individuals: “cultural intelligence” is the (apparently natural) ability to react appropriately to the unknown and ambivalent (see Harvard Business Review).

While the “cultural intelligence” of the individual comes into play above all in contact with “unknown cultures”, for me the cultural intelligence of a company or an organisation describes the ability to adapt the corporate culture to the unknown, ambivalent and changeable nature of the disruptive society “out there” in a wy that helps innovation and transformation to succeed. Not once, but over and over again. To avoid any misunderstanding: “Cultural intelligence of an organization” needs a broad concept of culture in order to be understood, because it is also about the ability to adapt to social, economic and technological changes.

“Culture change” is aimless. “Cultural Intelligence of an organization” describes this goal. A clarification that I believe is important in order to get the necessary change going. Let’s not talk about culture change.