Andy Thornton
Andy Thornton
17th February 2016

Culture change. It’s a phrase that’s thrown around with reckless abandon these days. Seems like no matter where you turn everyone is looking for a culture reboot. Presumably nobody is happy with the one they’ve got, and obliviously grateful for any alternative they’d receive in exchange.

If culture is the by-product of consistent behaviour then it stands to reason that changing culture is an inherently hard thing to achieve. Like giving up smoking, getting enough exercise or eating healthily, habits are hard-wired and difficult to shift. The standard approach to fixing stubborn routines is generally by consciously setting an objective then making slow and steady lack of progress towards achieving it.

Similarly with culture change, it’s one thing to hire a suite of well-presented management consultants who can point at what’s broken and politely suggest how to fix it, but it’s quite another to ensure that ‘fix’ remains fixed.

The epic challenge of culture change is best depicted in an unlikely source which should be made mandatory viewing for consultancies in this arena; the movie Inception.

Bear with me, and warning: there be spoilers ahead.

The premise of the film is that a group of special ops management consultants must infiltrate the mind of a tycoon's son who has recently become heir to his business empire. They subconsciously seed an idea for him to act on - breaking up the company - so that a rival corporation can gain a competitive advantage. Essentially covert culture change agents for the worse.

The protagonists make it clear their day-to-day business is actually stealing competitors ideas, a much easier task apparently, which presumably involves a couple of days of competitor review and a slide deck with some nice transitions.

The problem with implanting rather than extracting ideas, they tell us, is that for an idea to stick it has to be conceived, or rather believe to have been conceived, by the client. Anything perceived as having originated under foreign influence will be rejected.

SAITO
If you can steal an idea from someone’s mind, why can’t you plant one there instead?

ARTHUR
Okay, here’s planting an idea: I say to you, “Don’t think about elephants.”

SAITO (Nods)

ARTHUR
What are you thinking about?

SAITO
Elephants.

ARTHUR
Right. But it’s not your idea because you know I gave it to you. The subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.

Not entirely true, it turns out. At least not if you're the best of the best in the industry. But the film shows us the extent of difficulty that must be overcome to solve the problem of ‘true inspiration’: You must travel deep within the CEO’s subconscious, battling not only their habitual defences but also your own personal demons; mess about in hotels racking up huge bar tabs; go on motivational away days in the alps; trash the Chief Operating Officers winter retreat; create geometrical paradoxes that bend space; slow down time, and avoid being trapped in a perpetual limbo where the blue sky thinking of the lead consultant has become a terrible reality. All in the hope of being free to go home and finally see your children again.

It’s a risky, difficult and very expensive undertaking that only an elite team can pull off.

While Inception shows us the worst case scenario; having to bend the will of the CEO himself to enforce a change for the worse, rather than the better, it’s not a hard stretch to imagine a similar amount of risk, cost and difficulty in manipulating the ingrained behaviour of well-intentioned but belligerent middle managers and their staff.

The key to success is what Arthur hints at earlier: For an idea to come to full fruition it has to be owed by the client.

If only there was a way to achieve lasting culture change that didn’t involve shining an uncomfortably bright (sometimes accusatory) spotlight on the problem, or place undue (and unrealistic) emphasis on the besuited knight in shining armour, riding in to slay the dragon and save the day? A way to slowly but surely chip away at daily processes, habits and routines until a more productive way to behave innocuously hijacks the status quo and becomes the norm.

For the record, Clearleft doesn't do ‘culture change’.

Or do we?