Catalytic Converters

The cultural anchors that prevent a needed sea change in strategy

The essentials

In this excerpt from Simple: Killing Complexity for a Lean and Agile Organization, author Barry Cross explores both the catalysts that enable agile organizations and the barriers that yield nothing but inertia. 

What are the catalysts that drive change in your business? When asked, executives often respond with economic conditions, such as currency exchange rates, interest rates, or the price of oil. These conditions, or the events that drive them, can be catalysts for change, but as often as not they act as anti-catalysts. Oil and gas investment and exploration essentially ground to a halt through 2015 as oil prices plunged to record lows; the oil pricing event in this case caused organizations to halt any action and shut down strategic projects.

Competitor strategies and actions can stimulate change, so long as our biases do not create a “we know better” mindset. The problem here is that a reaction to a competitor’s initiative may be more aligned with the competition than with what customers really want. Crises or catastrophes are obvious catalysts, but we can’t control or create a crisis as part of most strategies. Collectively, then, external catalysts cannot form the foundation for change within our firm. They may be misaligned with customer need, delay action, or be too random to rely upon.

The most appropriate and effective catalyst for most organizations is an individual within the firm who can create a vision, help others see that vision, and align us all so we are moving in a particular direction. Whatever capabilities we build as an organization, even within a change-driven culture, for the campaign to really “stick” we need a champion, a cause, or a catalyst to get us moving.

At the same time, we should appreciate some of the anti-catalytic forces around us. These forces act as barriers and cultural anchors, invoking inertia and preventing us from doing the right thing and moving in the best direction for the firm. Here are some of these cultural anchors:

Hierarchy and Organizational Structure

Firms that have experienced serious missteps, such as Borders and Research in Motion, knew the appropriate next steps but could not navigate fast enough to execute. President Obama’s decision to appoint a White House staffer to lead the implementation of the Affordable Care Act — despite urgings from capable outsiders — was a decision based on structure, and led to a mediocre launch of the program.

Rules, Procedures, and Policies

These act like a legacy effect; they are leftovers from the way an organization used to be managed and can take years to work out of a system. As an example, the Bank of Canada discontinued the two-dollar bill in 1996, and a decade later there were still more than 100 million of them in circulation.

Collaboration Overload

While the impact of collaboration is usually very positive for an organization, the effort and time required to maintain it add up very quickly. Think about how much time people around the firm spend in meetings, conference calls, or even answering email. Some data indicate that such activities add up to 80 percent of people’s time.

Over the years, I have team-taught several university courses. Team teaching is always more work per individual than simply taking a course and dividing the work by the number of professors responsible. Although the quality of the product is enhanced, the administration does not recognize or appreciate that effort, resulting in fewer professors being willing to team up.


Your culture is the output of the collective behaviour within the firm, yet it is often thought of as an input and blamed for poor results and failed execution. Stop blaming your culture and correct the behaviour. Align work towards goals and objectives, help the team appreciate how their work impacts the customer and supports the team’s strategy, and then follow up to achieve the assurance that you are working to plan. Stay focused on agility and serving the customer and you won’t go wrong.

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