My hard lessons in change-Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast

My hard lessons in change-Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast

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Lesson Relearned

It was our 8th transformation project with a financial institution. The mandate was to help launch newer products, target newer customer segments, leverage technology and importantly leverage existing people albeit with a modified organisation structure. If you read between the words, it implied ‘same people’ will do ‘new things’ in ‘new ways’! In short it meant “Change”.

It seems obvious that any organisation will need to evolve in line with customer needs and competitive pressures. But the hard lesson I learned earlier in my career got reiterated. Best summarised by Peter Drucker- “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”

The organisation seemed unprepared and resistant to change despite the new CEO wanting to do it fast. What do you think happened?

While everyone agreed to the need, there was a difference in what should change and how. There were more meetings, more discussions and fewer conclusions. And then there were new communication channels from hitherto hidden board members which started opening up, in essence indicating “Why so fast?”.

In the end it seemed we were fitting a square peg in a round hole. The hole needed to be reshaped first.

Change is troublesome

You don’t need large scale transformations to elicit the feeling of insecurity or resistance. Smallest of challenge to status quo may cause unexpected reactions, sometimes out of proportion.

It won’t necessarily be a high decibel reaction with placards and all. The responses are rather subtle, what I call as ‘soft belligerence’, an oxymoron for good hospitality but low cooperation, towards both internal and external agents of change.

It manifests in various forms:
– delayed responses to emails
– wrong or incomplete information
– continuing with old process under the innocuous garb of ‘I didnt know’ or ‘We need more training’
– not being available for meetings or delegating it down the hierarchy.
And then there are other ways to add twists and delays in a regulated business like banking. For eg insisting on referring everything to ‘compliance’ ‘just to be sure’, while knowing fully well it is not needed. Who can say no to ‘compliance clearance’ afterall!

These are all the symptoms a change-agent should read carefully.

Managing Change

In any top-driven transformation, there is likely to be a lot of weightage given to end-state but not necessarily to the journey.

However, if you are catalysing change, the pre-transformation diagnosis of the organisation needs to go beyond financial parameters. Three judgements are crucial

a. Cultural Readiness: Is the current ‘state of mind’ of employees, promoters, board members and other influencers open to change?
b. Communication: How and what do we need to communicate before, during and after the change? Who are the right influencers to communicate?
c. Speed of change and phased Implementation: Are there any ‘low hanging fruits’ in the change bucket list that can be implemented without the fuss? This could mean the department where you can start the change or the smaller steps that you will implement to prep the organisation

This evaluation remains relevant irrespective of the genesis of change. Whether you are

-Moving to a new organisation and want to create drive in the team, increase innovation or efficiency

-Moving up the ladder or to a new department and want to bring sharper focus in the team or

-Undertaking large scale transformation as an external change agent,

It is essential to spend time to observe and form an independent view of speed with which change is palatable to the organisation.

In the transformation case I mentioned at the start, we suggested repositioning the ‘large scale’ change to ‘bite-sized’ improvements. Multiple department level initiatives were suggested instead of a centralised project management team. This covered 70% of the plan. A few large ticket items were kept for phase 2. Tactically, this helped the CEO, the key driver of change, to establish himself and build credibility.

My reiteration on ‘culture readiness’ borders on the edge of ennui but I have learned the hard way – Ideas may be inspiring but execution without culture prep will deflate them as easily.

Your expertise is secondary unless the organisation is ready to change. Without preparing for it, all strategic initiatives may end up as a well-designed report that gathers dust on the shelf.

Author Profile
Amit Balooni is the Founder of FrankBanker. In his 20+ years banking and consulting career, he has worked with leading banks and now advises banks and Fintechs globally on SME, SCF, Credit Risk and Strategy. Through his workshops, he has trained more than 2500 bankers across mid and senior levels. He continues to learn and share his learnings with fellow bankers on the way.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and does not reflect the views of