Tackling Your Structure and Your Culture in Parallel, Not Sequentially

A few colleagues and I were recently facilitating a co-creation workshop with a group of Director and VP level managers at a large manufacturing and distribution company, helping them define the ideal service experience for their customers and channel partners. As usual, we started talking about various personal experiences people had with good and bad service, and one of the big US-based airlines came up as a positive example. It happened to be a company we worked with, so we talked a bit about their transformation. Then, one of the participants – and the airline’s biggest fan in the group – asked a very fundamental question that many leaders face. It went something like this:

“We’re talking a lot about the people side of customer service, but these guys [at the airline] also have the systems and processes in place to deliver. They know who I am and they know my history every time I call. They seem to be empowered to make decisions quickly. Which part did they do first? Did they put all of the structure in place and then work on the culture, or was it the other way around?”

This is an important question for a few reasons.

  • It’s a logical and legitimate question about how to approach transformation. You need to know what to do when in order to make a plan. No special insight there.
  • It questions the traditional way we tend to operate – from the top down. First you build it, and then employees will come.
  • It hints at a common yet subtle objection to customer-centric change. Employees feel they are doing everything they can already – or would be doing it if only the right systems and processes were in place.


For us, the answer to the participant’s question is simple: Do both at the same time. Why? Because this will get you faster results with a much lower risk. Here’s how:

  • Faster results: Structural changes – reorgs, systems integrations, major policy changes, etc. – are very important, but they generally take a long time to execute. If you also start activating your employees to deliver within the current environment while the structural changes are flight, you start getting results immediately, creating facts on the ground to show success, and generating stories that build momentum. Then, when the structural foundation is in place later, people are ready and willing to adopt, and your results quickly accelerate.
  • Lower risk: What happens if you invest large chunks of time and money in structural changes and then employees don’t get on board? Or what happens if you get a new CEO in the middle of a big project, and he or she isn’t too keen on what you’re doing? You’re in big trouble. You can minimize these risks by activating the culture to demonstrate early success and create the inertia to stay the course.


To be clear, we’re not saying you should do the cultural and ignore the structural. That’s a recipe for employee disillusionment. You should do both at the same time, and they will complement each other to deliver faster results with lower risk.