Can You Really Change Culture?

There is a quote from Seth Godin I love so much that I have it in my email signature. Every single time a message leaves my outbox, so does the quote.

It says: “We can’t change the culture, but each of us has the opportunity to change a culture, our little pocket of the world.”

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What Seth means by that is that there is no universal culture, no “us” that defines everyone and everything. Not in a nation, not in an organisation, not in a team, not even in a family.

Ed Schein said almost the same thing in our interview:

You should never talk about the culture; it’s silly. It’s like saying: What is the culture of Italy? There are just too many elements to that culture.

It’s ironic but true – putting the definite article in front of “culture” makes it terribly indefinite and vague; using the indefinite “a”, allows us to zoom in on something meaningfully specific.

Culture change can and does work but only if we have the clarity, the insight, the determination and the courage to stop focusing on “the” culture and to pick “a” culture – a meaningfully specific aspect of the whole.

So, next time you feel tempted to say something like: “We need to change the culture in our team (or company or society)”, try asking:

  • What are we trying to accomplish? 
  • Which elements of our culture help us do that? 
  • Which elements hinder us from accomplishing what’s truly important? 
  • What is the one element of our culture that, if changed, would make all the difference to our ability to bring our vision of success to life? 

As Seth says: “That’s how we make change. By caring enough to want to change a culture, and being brave enough to pick just one.”

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