Top-Down, Bottom-Up, Over Sideways and Under

In case you hadn’t noticed, culture change is top of mind seemingly everywhere. The Auditor General of Canada had some, oh, shall we say harsh (?), words last week [Emphasis Added]:

“…little has been said about the culture that fosters incomprehensible failures.”

There were rather hearty discussions on GCconnex and on Twitter and those were just the bits I came across online. I’m sure there are many others I missed, not to mention the discussions around the proverbial water coolers and I’d be surprised if it didn’t make its way onto a couple of agendas for meetings in the last few days. The proverbial “what’s” and “so what’s” appear to have been answered. The question that remains, however – now what?

Well, now, presumably, we change the culture, right? Easy peasy. I’ll just plug in “culture change” to the old Google machine and… *gasps* 1.5 billion results. So, culture change is a big deal, eh? Yes, yes it is.


If you know anything about culture change you know that there’s more than one way to do it and even if you didn’t know before reading this sentence, we can all be pretty sure of that fact based (in part) on the 1.5 billion results from Google. Some think you should adhere to strict principles. Some think that it requires a movement (rather than a mandate). And others still, think you shouldn’t even mention culture change when trying to do just that.

Given the amorphous nature of culture, my experience teaching management for the last several years, and reading a lot (!) about the anecdotal successes and failures of change initiatives, I’m inclined to think that there isn’t one way to do it. Rather, a kitchen-sink approach can be most successful. What do I mean by that? Top-down, bottom-up, over sideways and under!

Some folks advocate that culture change has to cascade down from the top of an organization. Yes, that’s true. But it’s also false. If we just have the C-suite (er, DM and ADMs) trying to push the culture change, it’s likely to fall flat. So, what about the bottom-up approach. Sure, that’s a wonderful idea. Except, the decision-makers still “hold the power,” so if we can’t get them onboard the culture train, the change is doomed to fail. I’ve also seem some folks advocate for the middle-out approach, which, admittedly, is somewhat new to me – I haven’t seen much research in this domain.

I almost feel sheepish falling back on my management consulting laurels, but the change initiatives that I’ve seen be the most successful contain elements of the “four building blocks of change” (from McKinsey):

The key here is that it’s not just a top-down or bottom-up approach. Instead, the system – the incentives! – are changing. Of course, it’s not just the system. There still needs to be a showcase element (i.e. demonstrating to folks how we’re meant to behave) and an educational component (i.e. explaining to folks what the new culture looks like and how we’re meant to behave). Naturally, both of these fall to the wayside if folks don’t understand what’s being asked of them and more importantly, if congruence is absent. There needs to be a clear line of sight and understanding of the “why” we’re doing things a certain way. This inspirational piece can, theoretically, even help people to inspire themselves!

This whole discussion reminds me of what should be the northern star in all our actions as public servants – serving Canadians. Can you say that what you’ve done so far today has been in the service of Canadians?

PS: Yes, like my last post, there’s a hat tip in the title of the post. Anyone catch the subtle aspiration there? wink


This post originally appeared on GCconnex/GCcollab.

Published by Jeremiah Stanghini

Jeremiah's primary aim is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the "Blind Men and the Elephant," it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a 'tusk' or a 'leg.' He writes on a variety of topics: psychology, business, science, entertainment, politics, history, etc.

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