Why Culture Initiatives Fail

“We’re working on culture this year.”

I wish I had a dime for every time I heard an executive make that announcement. I’d have a lot of dimes.

It seems like everyone wants a great culture. One that’s customer-focused. And why not? A strong culture promises many benefits:

  • Employees will happily do the right thing
  • You’ll attract top talent
  • Customers will sing your praises

CEOs like to boldly announce that culture is a priority. Even Comcast is getting in on the culture game by announcing a major new initiative.

Most of these initiatives will fail. Here are three reasons why.


It’s hard to be good at something if you can’t define it.

The vast majority of organizations I talk to do not have a clearly defined culture. I’m not referring to the standard set of cultural artifacts like mission, vision, values. Let’s face it - most of those are hollow and empty.

I'm talking about something real. A clear compass that points people in the right direction.

The litmus test is to ask any random employee to describe the culture. Chances are, you’ll get a puzzled look or an answer that’s inconsistent from one person to the next.

The few companies who succeed with culture ensure every employee can answer three questions:

  1. What is our culture?
  2. How are we doing?
  3. How do I contribute?



Culture initiatives fail when companies try to copy someone else’s culture. 

That doesn’t stop companies from trying. A CIO once told me he wanted his team to be like the Apple Store. When I pressed him for details, the best he could do was say, “I want them to be good at service. You know, like the Apple Store.”

There’s a long list of books extolling the greatness of other company’s cultures. The Nordstrom Way, The Disney Way, The Virgin Way, The Cleveland Clinic Way, and the Southwest Airlines Way are on all sale right now. 

The absolute peak is when you can turn your culture into its own brand. The Ritz-Carlton and Disney offer classes on how to be more like them. Zappos now charges 10 bucks a head to tour their Las Vegas headquarters. 

Trying to copy another company’s culture fails because it’s their culture, not yours. Each company is unique. And, copying another culture ignores all the hard work the other company needed to get where they are today.

Great cultures can provide ideas and inspiration. But, they’re not paint-by-numbers guides.



Culture initiatives don’t work when they’re a side project.

Here are a few excuses I’ve heard for delaying a culture initiative:

  • “We’re knee-deep in system stuff right now.”
  • “We’d like to do it, but we don’t have the funding.”
  • “We’re focused on employee engagement right now.”

These excuses are convenient, but they really reflect a deeper misunderstanding about culture. Developing a strong culture is core. It’s fundamental and strategic.

A great culture would help make all of those decisions easier!

You have to live your culture if you want it to succeed. In-N-Out and McDonald’s started with the same three words to define their culture, but only In-N-Out actually lived them.

Treat it as a side project at your own peril.


Building a Strong Culture

You might want to start by reading about a successful cultural initiative.

Here are two resources to help you build your own customer-focused culture:

These resources can help, but there are no short-cuts. Culture initiatives can only succeed through a deep commitment.