Fix the process and culture will follow

A broken process can be the cause for a bad culture

Culture Is Not the Culprit, Harvard Business Review, (April 2016) is by far one of my favorite articles about process and culture. Over the years, I had clients that complained about their culture, and were looking for a quick fix.  My response was; “Fix the process and a better culture will follow.”  Below is a great quote from this article, followed by a short case study about a client that transformed their culture by transforming their process.

“CEOs who have successfully led major transformations—say that culture isn’t something you “fix.” Rather, in their experience, cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges like reworking an outdated strategy or business model. The culture evolves as you do that important work.”

Case Study


Lack of trust in the organization led to tremendous conflict between different departments. Products had not been delivered on-time in the last 5 years adding to the conflict. In some cases, because the conflict was too stressful, the engineering manager cancelled project meetings. The senior management team recognized a need for change and hired our firm to help repair the culture, and also to fix their broken product development system.


We started the project selecting the areas where we could make an immediate impact and reduce conflict: Improving time-to-market. After a time-to-market analysis, we determined that the number of product development projects, based on available resources, was out of balance.  They were working on 65 projects, and we recommended that the number of projects be scaled back to 7 in order to get products out the door.

To reduce the number of active projects, the organization made the decision to cancel or delay a number of projects. This had an immediate effect on the organization, and for the first time the team started to deliver projects on time. Instead of squeezing just one more project into the process, the senior management team stuck to their end of the deal and followed the guidelines for prioritizing projects.  The culture was getting better but it was not quite there.

We continued to work with the client team on designing and developing the rest of the product development system including:

  • Developing a robust lean product development process with integrated agile techniques
  • Standardizing project management processes and improving project visibility across the organization
  • Designing a portfolio management system that helps choose the right projects and determines the optimal number of projects based on available resources
  • Working with management to define future organizational structure with roles and responsibilities and integration of cross-functional teams
  • Coaching the product management team on developing product strategies and road maps

Once the organization adjusted to these changes, the product development process started to improve and departmental conflict to decrease.

Why it worked

We had strong backing from the CEO and COO. They recognized the need for change and were willing to invest the time and expense to make the necessary changes. The COO was instrumental in ensuring that the project team was on board with the product development changes we were suggesting, and we worked directly with the COO and team on designing the future state, training and implementation.  The CEO and COO’s involvement communicated to the team, that ‘yes’, this was a significant investment and the senior management team was serious about change.


The culture is getting better, but there were not any quick fixes. It took a while before the real conflict decreased. They are now working cross-functionally, and if problems are encountered it is not always on the shoulders of engineering. Project meetings are held, but now the participants are civil. The senior managers are much happier because products are now being delivered on time. Are the organization’s departments best buddies? No, but they now have much more respect for each other. A clear strategy and process with defined roles and responsibilities provided the needed guidance. Project team members now work with a process and know what to do including the senior management team.

Following are the steps to change an organization’s culture (in the order of importance):

  1. Get senior leadership buy-in and participation (hopefully the CEO, COO)
  2. With an objective outside party, determine the biggest areas of conflict and fix that first
  3. Fix the overall gaps in the process/system
  4. Develop an integrated team with clearly spelled out roles and responsibilities

While culture is often blamed for many of the problems in product development, it is clear that the process often drives undesirable behaviors. By fixing the process, the needed culture changes will follow.