A corporate culture is amorphous, often difficult to describe and difficult for managers to change. But organizational change is really cultural change. So when a trio of management consultants – one of them the well-known author Jon Katzenbach – narrows down cultural change to a few easy-to-understand elements, it’s worth paying attention.

“The cultural aspect of an enterprise is of equal importance to its strategic imperative and operations approach. Those three will determine the enterprise. But culture is very different from the other two, and hard for you to change,” Mr. Katzenbach, author of books such as Leading Outside the Lines and The Wisdom of Teams, said in an interview.

Strategy and operations management are analytical, while culture is as much emotional as rational. Because of that, he said, you can only influence it slowly, incrementally.

That observation runs counter to what celebrated turnaround artists claim and incoming CEOs promise. They insist they can make big changes quickly – turn around the supertanker on a dime. “The notion that you can yell at it to change it doesn’t work,” he said. “I don’t use the term ‘culture change.’ It’s about culture evolving. It happens slowly over time.”

As for those turnaround dramatists: They had better hope that the culture they inherited will support the corporate transformation they intend since they are stuck with the culture. It’s not going away, or changing quickly.

An example is Hewlett-Packard, where Mr. Katzenbach once worked. Over a few generations, the company managed significant strategic and operational change, all aligned with its culture, the famed “HP Way.” Then a couple of CEOs wanted to get rid of the culture or change it. They’re gone, the culture is still there, and its new chief executive officer, Meg Whitman, is promoting “HP Way Now,” which symbolizes incremental change.

With his fellow Booz & Co. consultants Rutger von Post and James Thomas, Mr. Katzenbach highlights several components of culture that must be addressed for effective change. They outline “the critical few” in a recent Strategy+business article.

First, critical behaviours. Critical behaviours are those ways of doing things in your current operations that can easily spread from one employee to another and have the potential to have a real impact on business. In the interview, Mr. Katzenbach cited Southwest Airlines, which focuses on three critical behaviours: make every customer experience a good one, make sure everyone hired energizes the people around them, and do everything on the cheap.

Like that airline, you need to pinpoint a few critical behaviours that embody the cultural priorities you are seeking. Then harness them to strengthen and modify the existing culture.

Getting it down to just a few will be difficult. He worked with a Middle Eastern company that initially identified 20 to 25 behaviours needing adjustment. “To get an emotional boost from your culture, which is deeply embedded, you have to narrow it down to three or four,” he said.

The inclination will be to tackle behaviours that are holding you back, such as lack of collaboration or not giving honest feedback to colleagues. Instead, the consultants ask you to take stock of the positive aspects of your culture and consider which elements could be used to drive the behaviours you seek most. In the article, they suggest asking:

How visible would these behaviours be if a senior executive were to exhibit them? Would others throughout the organization see and recognize the change?

Will these behaviours be contagious enough to be spread through social networks and peer relationships?

What potential do the behaviours have to create real, measurable business impact?

The second step is to focus on three or four existing cultural traits that have an emotional influence on the people in your organization. As examples, Mr. Katzenbach points to the U.S. Marines’ core values of honour, courage and commitment. Critical behaviours are more practical than traits. But you need to dig at the traits that lead to the behaviours you want – that employees take pride in – and promote them, so that people will change their behaviour. “When employees hear about the traits, they need to be able to recognize and personalize them. The traits need to feel specific to the real world [that] people work in every day. Getting to this point is a process,” the consultants write.

Finally, you need to mobilize what the consultant call “the informal leaders” in your organization. These are people at various levels who motivate others by what they do and how they do it. They are recognized by their colleagues as credible, trustworthy and effective – and they know how to influence behaviour. They are already doing it, and you want them to help champion the change you are promoting so that others will buy in. “These people are almost more essential in gaining cultural impact than the leaders at the top,” Mr. Katzenbach noted.

There you have it: critical behaviours, cultural traits, and informal leaders – the crucial few elements that can help you create cultural change, slowly.

Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Mar. 23 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Mar. 24 2014, 12:21 PM EDT