Trying to change a 20th century corporate culture? Where should you start?

alllostfortuneWhen I talk about the culture that we’ve built at Red Hat over the years around the principles of the open source way, one of the most popular questions I get is something along these lines.

That’s great and all, Chris. But Red Hat built its culture from scratch. My company culture has been the same for over 50 years. Can you change a deeply entrenched 20th century culture?

It’s a great question. Clearly there is a big advantage to being able to organically build a corporate culture from scratch. But, with support from the top levels of management, it is not impossible to change an entrenched culture, too.

Where do you start? Here are three tips:

Tip 1: Discover (or rediscover) Tom Peters

reimagineWay, way back in 1982, Tom Peters made a name for himself with the book In Search of Excellence. Over the last 25 years he’s continued to test the limits of business innovation. In 2003, he wrote a book called Re-imagine, which is (despite an eye-challenging design) a collection of some of the most amazing, mind-bending culture and management ideas I’ve ever seen (and it made my list of the 10 top books behind Dark Matter Matters). If you want to truly get in Tom Peters’s head, start with this book.

Or, if you want to dip your toes in the water first, go check out Tom’s great website (where you can download hundreds of his slides and presentations), subscribe to his blog feed, or follow him on Twitter. Yesterday he tweeted that he is working on a new book, so stay tuned!

Tip 2: Enter the world of Gary Hamel

futureofmanagementFortune Magazine has called Gary Hamel the world’s leading expert on business strategy. I’d certainly heard his name for years, but I’d always thought of him in a fairly traditional management and cultural sense. Until I read his book The Future of Management, which I’ve previously discussed here and here. Boy was I wrong.

The basic thesis of the book? The management model developed in the late 19th and early 20th century and integral to the success of the industrial revolution is starting to show signs of wear. It is being replaced by a new model, embodied by companies like Whole Foods, Google, and W.L. Gore (the makers of Gore-Tex); all three are highlighted in the book. I like to think Red Hat embodies this model too, and would have made a nice 4th case study for the book.

But just like with Tom Peters, books are only the starting point. Gary is actively blogging for the Wall Street Journal, and he’s started a non-profit management think tank called MLab that you should check out too. MLab puts out a free bi-monthly PDF publication called Labnotes that is full of amazing ideas. I’ve downloaded all of the previous issues and keep them on my Kindle for reference (I’m such a nerd). If you really want to be blown away, go watch some of these videos, filmed at an MLab event earlier this year with some of the smartest experts on management and culture innovation in the world.

Tip 3: Harvard Business Review is as relevant as ever

I know, I know. Harvard is mecca for 20th century business, and there are some business schools out there challenging Harvard as leaders of the 21st century model; Stanford, The University of Toronto, MIT, and (as much as it pains a Carolina grad to say it) Duke all come to mind. But Harvard Business Review continues to have some of the best articles by the smartest minds in business. Every issue has at least three or four pieces that will really get you thinking. Downside? A subscription to Harvard Business Review is almost $100 a year.

If you don’t want to shell out that kind of coin, there is still tons of free content on the HBR website. Check out their great blogs, subscribe to their free newsletters, or do what I do and subscribe to the Twitter feed. I’ve also just uncovered a new Twitter feed called AskHBR, where you can tweet your management questions and the experts will point you in the right direction… Haven’t tried it yet, but sounds interesting.

So if you are in the thick of trying to change your 20th century organization and are getting frustrated, please take solace from the words of my favorite fortune cookie fortune ever: “All is not yet lost.” There are plenty of folks out there who want to help you. Start with these resources above, and if you find anything else you think is really awesome, please pass it on– I’m always looking for new ideas!

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.

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