Culture Change Programmes or You’ll Never Get Me Up In One Of Those

First appeared in ‘Better Business (U.K.)

“There’s a new change management program starting next week,” said the worried voice on the phone, “What can I do?”

“Keep your head down” was my sage advice.

“But this one’s serious.”

“They all are.”

“No; really. This time the H.R. Department is determined to make it happen. I don’t want to change. What can I do?”

“Stay out of the way. It’s the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome.”


“There’s a river in Africa that starts in a range of mountains in Namibia known as the Okavanga-KalahariRiver. Everyone knows where it starts — it’s a huge river. It flows into the Kalahari Desert but no one really knows where it finishes. It just sort of fades away.”


The vast majority of culture change programs go like this. Big start with trumpets, fanfares, senior managers wheeled out… the first events are hugely popular and over-subscribed. Go back in six months time and ask about it. It just sort of disappeared — no-one knew when, or whose decision it was. It just faded into the desert. The Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome.

It’s not always so. There are a number of factors that will help in the success of any culture program:

Number one: do the maths. How much will it cost? How much extra will you get out of it? If you can’t get a tangible benefit then forget it. Your employees certainly won’t be bothered unless there’s something in it for them, as individuals. You certainly shouldn’t be bothered unless there’s something in it for you as an organisation. This benefit should be financial. OK it’s difficult to measure. Does that mean you don’t even try?

“It will make people more motivated and corporate” is a reason I’ve frequently heard for running a program.

“Show me the money.” I reply.

“But we can’t express it in financial terms.”


If you can’t get a benefit don’t bother. There must be a benefit in terms of more work produced, more targets met, less sick leave taken. Try to calculate all the “soft” measures. If you can motivate staff to take a real pride in their work, produce quality materials, chase every customer — how much is that worth to you?

Second, attendance on the program cannot be voluntary. You’ve done the sums now make people attend. Make it interesting, that’ll help. Make it rewarding. Take people away from the workplace, spend some money on them, treat them decently. They work for you, treat them as you’d like to be treated. Let them travel first class, stay in a nice hotel, feed them good meals with wine. Build this into the maths. Don’t be tempted to do it on the cheap.

Next, do the politics. And there will be politics. People tend to not like change so if you’re not getting any resistance — it’s because they’ve heard of the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome and are just keeping their heads down waiting for it to go away. You need to encourage resistance — get it out in the open. At least here you’ll have a chance to address it. If it’s hidden in the shadows you have no chance.

Deal directly with people. Peter Senge describes the levels of alignment staff may have with the vision of the organisation; committed, enrolled, compliant, grudgingly compliant, apathetic or saboteurs. You need to address these saboteurs especially, early on or they will destroy your program with their cynicism. By the way I heard a great definition of a cynic the other day — someone who’s given up but not shut up. There are a number of ways of turning ‘saboteurs’ into stars. One extremely successful method is to get them actively involved in the design of the program. The most successful “Customer care for computer staff” program I’ve seen was designed by the three most vociferous opponents of the program. They were identified very early on and asked to attend the pilot course. They were then invited to rewrite the program in the light of their knowledge and experiences.

In one respect staff can be thought of as sheep. Have you noticed how a flock of sheep move? There are usually a few leaders at the start, a few stragglers at the end and 80% of the flock in the middle. If you can get the first few sheep moving in the right direction along with one or two of the laggards then the flock will head in the right direction. That is as long as you keep them moving. If you stop, there is a tendency for the flock to stop, so build in mini targets, incentives, milestones. Keep the momentum going all the way. Aim for some quick wins to start the sheep moving. These should be tangible, identifiable, public outcomes directly attributable to the program. E.g., “As a result of the Culture Change Program there will be a: simplification of the appraisal system; gym membership subsidy introduced; better meals in the staff canteen; restructuring of the senior management team….”

A lot of the political difficulties will be caused by the silent majority. Address these. Look at the shadow-side of your organisation. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. There are many examples of this shadow-side at work in organisations:

I’ve been invited to pre-meeting meetings, pre pre-meeting meetings and even once a pre pre pre-meeting meeting to make sure our tactics were correct before the pre pre-meeting meeting. These activities take time and energy away from the goals of the organisation.

If you ever have to work in a school, on the first day you meet the headmaster, of course, and then you talk to the people with the real power — the caretakers, deputy headmistresses and their like. In many organisations Personal Assistants and secretaries tend to have far more actual power than their position in the hierarchy would suggest. Be nice to them. They will get you that five-minute meeting with the Head of Department if they like you. Don’t pretend these things don’t go on.

Once I worked in an organisation where an administrator who had worked in the office for 35 years had a great deal of influence. If she didn’t like something, things tended to move a lot slower, if at all. Find out who the key players are, cultivate them. Take up smoking if you need to. The smoking room tends to be a great area for finding things out first. People who go there tend to be relaxed, tend to be from a wide range of work areas and seem to have time to think and make connections. Two seemingly disconnected facts like; a computer is being moved and there’s been a recent promotion board, can yield intriguing information — often days before an announcement becomes official.

You must instigate any culture program from the very top and work down. Managers at all levels must buy into the program and sell it down the line. This is frequently a very difficult trick to pull off. Somewhere in the chain there will invariably be managers that “don’t do” training. Talk to them, encourage them, threaten them — whatever works, but you can’t ignore them. Staff see managers not attending, or attending and not changing their behaviour, and the program suddenly loses credibility. “Why should I bother?” You’ll start seeing lots of non-attendees with “too busy to attend” notes from their managers. Leading by example has to start from the top, with top managers rewarded or disciplined immediately. If the credibility of the program goes, you’d just as well forget it straight away and save yourself some money.

There’s a syndrome creeping into modern business now of change overload. Every week there seems to be a new initiative, a new program, a new mission statement. People are getting drained. Any new program needs to be real, well thought out, have tangible benefits and be fully supported by senior management and all departments. There should be people begging to go on it. One interesting approach, based on some psychological studies to do with reactants, involved telling people they couldn’t attend the program. They began clamouring to get on it. They were phoning, emailing, “Why can’t I do it? Put me on the reserve list?” I wouldn’t recommend this manipulative use of psychology but there could be some elements of it you could use; invite people to apply, ask them why they should be included, make attendance a reward rather than a punishment. This will work.

Oh, the reference in the title is from an excellent program concerning change by Scott Simmerman. Two caterpillars are talking (as they do) and they spot a butterfly. They both look up and one caterpillar says to the other “You’ll never get me up in one of those.”


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