Culture: The Iceberg That Sinks Organizational Change!: How to Survive the Impact


Marge Combe 

Wisconsin, USA

IBM undertook a study to determine what gets in the way of companies being able to implement the changes that will realize corporate strategy.  The Number One reason, identified by fully half the respondents, was ‘corporate culture’.  (“The Enterprise of the Future: IBM Global CEO Study 2008.” IBM Corporation.  May 2008. www.ibm.enterpriseofthefuture).   Other academic research and consulting studies point to the same major culprit in derailing change efforts.

We all nod our heads.  We’ve had this experience and know the statistics are true.  But then we shake our heads in confusion.  What is this thing called culture, how does it work, and why is it so prominent in limiting our ability to change?  And what can we do about it?

Culture is like an iceberg, with most of its weight and bulk below the surface.

  1. It is all about assumptions, beliefs, and social behaviors of the group.  And those are so inculcated that they are hard to even recognize, let alone change.  If a company has been successful over time with tweaks to its market approach, assumptions build up over time that tweaks, rather than overhauls, are appropriate strategy.  And beliefs develop that ‘staying the course’ is the right strategy in a volatile market.  And social behaviors reward conservative viewpoints and punish those deemed risky. 
  1. These assumptions, beliefs and behaviors are shared, and reinforced by group norms.  The shared nature of culture binds it tightly into the DNA of an organization.  And as in any culture, individuals are held accountable to the rituals and beliefs of the group, or ostracized if not compliant. 
  1. People have self-limiting mechanisms to resist personal change.  In their book Immunity to Change, authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey suggest that even when someone sets clear personal goals to change (like learning to use a new system), s/he simultaneously and unconsciously establishes barriers that undermine those plans – competing commitments, assumptions, competing behaviors and beliefs: the ‘knowing-doing gap’.  Thus, people self-regulate to the group norms and to the status quo. 

Even more pertinent for organizations dealing with change are characteristics of culture that are hard-wired to make it difficult to change.


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About the Author

flag-usamarge-combeMarge Combe 

Wisconsin, USA 

Marge Combe is a coach/consultant with Vernal Management Consultants, LLC (VMC), a firm specializing in the professional development and effective business practices of leaders and leadership teams (www.vernalmgmt.com).  VMC currently coaches a number of leaders and business owners in the project management profession, in North America, Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific Rim, and South America.  Marge joined VMC in 2008 after more than 35 years in portfolio management, strategic planning and large-scale change management for Northwestern Mutual and Whirlpool Corporation.   She has leveraged that experience and a passion for coaching and mentoring into a consulting and leadership coaching role with special focus on her roots: change management, strategic planning, and project management.  Marge is a former PMI board director and Chair of the Strategic Planning and Program Alignment Committee.  She was instrumental in shaping and leading a Fortune 500 Project Management Benchmarking Forum.  She is certified in coaching through Lominger International and in emotional intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential.  She received the 2007 Woman of Influence Award for mentoring, and the 2010 Leadership Excellence Award from Marquette University.  Marge can be contacted at [email protected].