Work culture as a restraining or a driving force in change management

A colleague posted about the importance of effective change management in concert with project management. He lives and works in an country with an authoritarian government. According to Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947), broadly acknowledged as the founder of organization development (OD), effective planned change is based on democratic principles, which are hard enough to do effectively in a democratic culture, let alone in  more autocratic culture. Here is my response to his post:

You are raising important issues. Another consideration is whether the cultural essence of change management – democratic principles of engaging people within a clear decision-making structure – fits the broader culture of the organization and even the society within which the organization operates. If so, which is rare, there is ample research to show that both performance and morale will be high. If not – if the organization is either too authoritarian or too passive (or a combination of both) in their leadership culture, which is the norm even in democratic societies – then you have an uphill battle to get results, but also a great opportunity to use the project as a means to change the culture. If you can get alignment with the leadership that democratic principles are the goal because they increase productivity and morale, then the project change management becomes a tool for broader culture change, which can happen within any organization in any society.

Allow me to add to that response. The same potential lies in any major cross-functional project. Not only can change management based on the Lewin’s planned change greatly increase the odds of successful implementation of the project, it can also be a platform for driving cultural change in the entire organization, as part of or the foundation for a broader OD strategy.

Despite dismal statistics for IT and other project implementations, change management is often seen as a “nice to have” instead of an essential part of project management. When change management is included, it is often watered down into a lame project pr campaign, limited to an executive speech, newsletters, banners and coffee mugs. No wonder understandably cynical project mangers often skip it altogether. They want to get on with the real work of over-functioning and shoving in the change whether the organization is aligned with it or not.

Effective planned change engages the end users and others to be impacted in planning, problem solving (anticipating barriers/restraining forces), influencing decisions, and implementing the change. Lewin’s principles applied to IT implementation reliably leads to on-time, on budget, high quality outcomes, yet are known and practiced by only a few.

And that is only the tip of the iceberg of possibilities. Our founder (and father) mastered using large cross-functional projects as an opportunity to drive culture change. He helped PECO Nuclear shorten their refueling outages from an average of 70 days to the current industry standard of 30 days or less and in the process helped the PECO leadership learn how to lead in a new way, while helping the workforce learn how to engage more effectively so as to raise and resolve issues. The same strategy worked time and again in a variety of organizational settings, and continues to do so today.

Managing a business critical project without effective planned change is foolish. Applying effective planned change only to the project is thinking small, but is still the best chance you have of shifting the culture effecting the project from resistance, or a restraining force, to a driving force for implementation success.

Let me say more about Lewin’s idea of “forces.” Borrowing from the natural sciences, Lewin noted that systems tend towards homoeostasis. There is a field of forces, especially culture (beliefs, behaviors, emotions), that are both driving and restraining change, and thus creating a balance that that holds things in place. Lewin conducted numerous experiments that showed that simply pushing harder, as most management teams try to do, creates a counter-reaction or counter-force. Hard won gains are less than desired, and fad away. Lewin’s research also showed that the application of democratic principles, such as letting the people facing the challenge (whatever it may be) think for themselves through dialogue with their peers, reliably led to group commitment to the change and high rates of sustained implementation of new practices. Whereas most try to overpower the restraining forces, through this process the restraining force of employee attitude is shifted into a driving force. Furthermore, the end users will address other restraining forces by surfacing and helping to solve problems that only they can be aware of through their hands on experience in the organization – and that is the culture that also drives high performance in daily operations.

Using cross-functional projects to drive effective democratic principles into the organization is visionary. Such a strategy is needed in most organizations but especially so if the organizational culture and the broader social culture are autocratic. Starting at the top, or at least at the top of the portion of the organization that you are targeting to change, it can be done.

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
This entry was posted in Alignment, Change Management, Cross-Functional Work, Culture Change, Gilmore Crosby, Groupdynamics, Leadership, Matrixed Work, Organization Development, Robert P Crosby, Systems Thinking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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