How Hollywood Might Depict Changing Organizational Culture

Most of us love movies and TV shows because it allows us to look in on characters and situations to see how things play out. Recently there has been fascinating news coverage and social media chatter about the unexpected ending to Game of Thrones. Many people are outraged at the treatment of their favorite characters. In a similar time frame, the long running TV sitcom Big Bang Theory also completed its story. While there was not as much angst and upset as with Game of Thrones, there still were plenty of points of view on how it should have ended.

This recent news got me thinking how Hollywood writers would develop a script about executives involved in changing organizational culture. What would the story line be and who would be the main characters? How might this story play out?

If we assume the screen writers looked on the internet for guidance and used the prevailing mindset about changing organizational culture, then we could expect a hero or two who were inspiring. This inspiration would be geared toward helping groups of people find new values, which in turn changed the values in the organization.

  • Given that, what movies come to mind which are inspiring?
  • What would be your list of top 10?
  • Would you include any of the following?
  • If asked to name movies which depict how you think about changing a culture, which movies would you pick?
  • Would you think of movies which you found inspiring?

Top 10 Most Inspirational Movies

  1. Forrest Gump
  2. The Shawshank Redemption
  3. The Pursuit of Happiness
  4. The Blind Side
  5. 3 Idiots
  6. Rocky
  7. Braveheart
  8. Remember the Titans
  9. 127 Hours
  10. It’s a Wonderful Life

This list is from a blog entitled Top Ten Most Inspirational Movies of All Time. We think that changing organizational culture should look heroic and inspiring. In most movies, we can see who or what the obstacle is and what is needed to overcome. With that insight we can imagine how the story should play out.

Misunderstandings About Organizational Culture

At this point in time there is little doubt that the quality of an organizational culture has profound impact on the performance of an organization. Given the magnitude of the impact of culture on performance, one would think that those of us in business would be very knowledgeable about what culture is and how to improve it. Nothing could be further from the case. Most of us have an incomplete and superficial view of what constitutes organizational culture and how culture can be changed. The “prevailing wisdom” is that culture is the values and principles of an organization. We assume that what is needed to change culture is to articulate some lofty and inspiring principles and values. Culture change will be based on inspiration and look like the first list of films. We assume that if we articulate inspiring principles and values that surely people in the organization will adopt them and the culture will change. Oh, were it that easy.

While values and principles are an important element in culture there is much more to the story. Culture is comprised of:

  • Artifacts of behavior, processes and structures. These are the things that are visible to people in the organization. Most employees see these artifacts as indicating what the “real culture is”.
  • Values and principles. Unfortunately, in many organizations the artifacts which people can feel and see are disconnected from the values and principles.
  • Tacit assumptions. These assumptions are developed over time through shared learning by groups of people in the organizations. These tacit assumptions are passed on to new employees joining the company as how to fit in and succeed in this organization. In most organizations these tacit assumptions are so taken for granted as to be invisible to most people in the organization yet form the context for the organization.

Changing or improving organizational culture requires digging in to understand this third level of tacit assumptions. It is tedious and tense work … which I think Hollywood would depict in very different ways if the screenwriters actually understood what’s required to change culture. That’s why I have a different list of movies that I think best describe organizational culture change.

Movies That Describe Organizational Culture

  1. The Abyss
  2. Armageddon
  3. Lethal Weapon 3
  4. Blown Away
  5. Juggernaut
  6. Fight Club
  7. The Shadow
  8. Die Hard with A Vengeance
  9. MacGruber
  10. The Rock

When you look at that list, what comes to mind? If I told you those were the Top Ten movies on a list, what do you think is the criteria for being on that list?

This list is from a blog entitled, Top 10 Wire-Cutting Bomb Moments in Film. You are likely thinking of wire cutting to defuse a bomb as a curious choice to depict what changing organizational culture looks like. Yet it is, so read on.

Think about watching movies when a bomb squad specialist in working to defuse a bomb. What did you see? Painstaking actions to understand how the bomb was built as well as how it can be deconstructed. Each move is calculated based on understanding the unique attributes of the bomb rather than assuming that all bombs are made the same. The actions are calculated and focused to take each step, which will lead to the next step. Hurry and shortcuts are not a formula for success in deconstructing bombs… nor is a good formula for deconstructing cultures in order to see a path to making changes in the culture.

The similarities of wire-cutting bomb movies and organizational culture is this: we have a vague understanding of how either works. The difference is we know that we know very little about defusing bombs, while most of us think we know much more about how organizational culture works than we actually do.

Organizational culture is the shared learning by groups of people in the organization. This shared learning involves what produces success and survival of the organization. As an organization matures these “shared learnings” are passed on to new people who join the organization. At some point these shared learnings become so imbedded in the organization that it “disappears” into the background and can no longer be seen by those in the organization. While it is “invisible” to members of the organization, this imbedded share learning has significant impact on how things are perceived and acted on.

Organizational cultures are much more complex that we realize. In fact, cultures are so complex that is hard to comprehend how the culture developed over time or how the culture shapes behaviors and performance of the organization. Edgar Schein is the preeminent authority on organizational culture. He has consulted with and studied cultures for over fifty years. He has also written the definitive text on organizational cultures and leadershipSchein says that cultures are so complex and large that it is impossible to comprehend and study. He uses an analogy of human personality. He says imagine that you have decided that you want to change all of your personality. How would that work? It would not. Personality is too well established to be amenable to wholesale changes. Schein says that the best you can do is identify an aspect of your personality which is causing problems, e.g., over eating or too much drinking. It is possible to work on that specific problem related to one’s personality … albeit a huge challenge.

The Great Irony

Think how ironic it is that we know so little about the culture of organization. How is that possible given we have had a lifetime of experience in organizations with distinct and unique cultures and yet work with a superficial understanding?

We all have grown up in complex organizations with clear cultures, called schools. We started in elementary school which had a distinct culture. We then moved on to middle school and then high school. Then many of us went on to universities, which also have clear cultures which are quite unique from high school. After our university experiences we took our first job with a company, whose organizational culture was probably very unique from our educational experiences. Many of us have had several to many different jobs in different organizations. Each time we enter a new organization we sense the uniqueness of the cultures, and our capacity to see this uniqueness fades as we come to feel at home in this organization.

With all this experience in entering and adapting to unique cultures, it would seem like we would be experts at understanding how cultures work. Yet we are not. That is because the nature of cultures is so pervasive that it is very hard to see except when first entering the organization. After a relatively short time we become part of the culture and can no longer see the particular distinctiveness of our new organization. We come to function within the culture without being able to see it per se. This is because a primary role of culture is to show new people to the organization how to fit in and behave in the organization.


Organizational culture has a significant impact on organizational culture performance, yet most of us in organizations have an incomplete understanding of what constitutes culture. If we are to improve organizational performance by changing the organization’s culture, we will need to look past the superficial concept that simply changing the values will change the culture. The best approach is to carefully understand how the specific culture you are dealing with developed over time and then identify specific problems which can serve as the “wires to cut” in defusing the complexity that every culture has.

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Appreciating I.M. Pei and Architecture for Transformation

A remarkable man died at the age of 102 on May 16th, 2019. I.M Pei lead the design of some of the most unique buildings, which blended daring visual effect with practicality. Among his most notable projects were Boston’s John F Kennedy Library and Museum, Bank of China tower in Hong Kong, Japan’s Miho Museum, Suzhou Museum in China and Dallas City Hall with fellow architect Theodore J Musho. Remarkably, Pei was in his eighties when he designed the spectacular Islamic Museum of Art in Qatar.

I came to appreciate I.M. Pei for his work on Louvre Museum in Paris. This project was for me a masterful example of architecture for transformation of a building. I have adopted some of the lessons I observed from the Louvre project to my work with clients as an architect for organizational transformation. Let me explain.

A crucial aspect of organizational transformation is developing the architecture. That is, the use of design principles to uniquely visualize and plan for implementing transformative changes in an organization. Unless you have been involved in designing and initiating the transformation of an organization, you may be unfamiliar with the term architecture for transformation. This term came into use in the 1980’s and continues to be used. The basis for architecture for transformation:

  • Translating the executives’ vision for the future of the organization into words. “Painting a word picture” of the commitments and intent of the executives with the future of the organization is the crucial first step. This involves identifying what the future is likely going to look like, called the Default Future. With the Default Future articulated, the next step is for the executives to create a new future that if achieved would fulfill the needs and wants of key stakeholders of the organization. This Invented Future is one which becomes the basis for developing an architecture for transformation.
  • Combining the core elements which have proven to be important for achieving success in other transformations. McKinsey refers to these as “transformational tactics”. These core elements or tactics include changing mindsets, inclusion of groups in planning and implementing the specific projects and etc.
  • Execution or implementation plans which establish urgency for undertaking the transformation as well as creating tangible results in the business. The challenge is to create action and momentum without overstraining the capabilities and resources of the organization.


Lessons Learned from I.M. Pei & the Louvre Project

Challenging Design

In redesigning a building or transforming an organization, the first step is to assess the level of complexity. The Louvre was an exceptional example of complexity. The first structures were built in the 12th century as a fortress on the banks of the Seine River. The building slowly evolved into a royal residence. Successive Kings built increasingly elaborate galleries, halls and residences. Architects of different eras had been asked to develop plans for construction of a new component or structure in the Louvre. Because the Louvre was the palace of the Kings, it played a prominent role in the French Revolution. The buildings were first opened to the public in 1793. This was during the French Revolution and came shortly after the executions of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. After the Revolution, different buildings were used as governmental administrative offices and residences. Eventually it became a museum.

By the early 1980’s it was painfully clear that a major remodeling of the Louvre was required. The architectural challenge was to honor the magnificent history, protect the unique beauty and to remake the various buildings into an efficient, modern museum. The buildings were in need of renovation, core infrastructure was missing, and the gallery space was very inefficient. The building was “constructed as a royal palace and was fundamentally ill-suited to serve as a museum.” In addition, there was a problem with the entrance. It was too small to accommodate ever increasing numbers of guests. The Louvre Project was to change all of that, as well as add 650,000 square feet of much needed support space.

I’ve been involved in organizational transformations for over thirty years. Each one has had a plethora of surprises and unique dynamics. Each requires creative thinking about these unique challenges of the business and personalities of key stakeholders.

Diverse Stakeholders

If you have spent any time in France, you know that the French are very passionate about the beauty of their splendid country. This beauty is both natural and man-made. There are many magnificent buildings, of which the French are very proud, and certainly the Louvre is one of those buildings.

Excitement built as the initial plans for remodeling the Louvre were discussed in the early 1980’s. As you probably know, the French LOVE to hotly debate items of French life. During this time the Parisian cafes were filled with animated conversations about how the remodeling should be done, and of course everyone had their own unique views. That is, until the French government announced that it had hired I.M. Pei as the architect who would oversee a complete redesign of the Louvre. The first shock was that the government had not hired a Frenchman. A second shock came with the realization that the architect to whom this precious French treasure had been entrusted was not a European! Then there was a moment of stunned silence followed by outrage. What set the ‘tongues wagging’ in the cafes, restaurants, and homes was that the French government had awarded this most prestigious assignment to a Chinese born American! An AMERICAN!?!?!

Needless to say, there are many strongly held opinions about consultants in every organization. In developing the architecture for transformation, it is essential that each group of stakeholders are able to express their commitments and concerns. The willingness of consultants and executives to listen to the various stakeholders is a crucial first step. The second step is to consider how to address what stakeholders have said in developing the design for the transformation. Of course, not every point of view can be completely satisfied… but some elements can be included.

Disruptive Approaches

Organizational transformation requires disruption in approaches to communication, employee mindsets and ways of conducting the business. These disruptions are to interrupt the status quo so that new ways to working and thinking can be implemented. While this is completely logical, nonetheless it is upsetting to people when it is happening. This was clearly the case for Pei’s design for the Louvre. The focal point would become the plaza of the Louvre with the construction of a series of glass pyramids and fountains. For many onlookers, the construction of pyramids made of glass and steel was too modern and seemed completely out of line with the architecture of the existing buildings.

Sustaining Momentum During Execution

Given that meaningful transformation of an organization takes three plus years, the architecture must include plans for sustaining the commitment and engagement over that length of time. A building construction such as the Louvre clearly faces the same challenges. The Louvre project took six years to complete. During those long years there continued to be hot debate about the decision to hire an American and the radical changes this “rogue American” was proposing. While there were construction barriers, the citizens could see the beginning of the frames for the glass pyramids that became a focal point of the changes. The furor over hiring an American was compounded by the inevitable traffic jams that were created by renovation activities in the heart of Paris. Of course, the traffic jams were inevitable regardless of the nationality of the architect, but that was not the conversation among frustrated drivers at the time. I had the pleasure to briefly live in Paris during this time and was frequently in the Tuileries with my young children. Given my kids were playing at the boat pond and in the gardens, I often spoke with other parents and tourists. I found it interesting how often I was asked about what I thought about an American being hired as the architect for the Louvre…. given that my accent makes it clear that I am an American. That was one of those questions for which there was not a good answer.

Stunning Accomplishments

Transformation of organizations produces achievements and results which were previously thought impossible. Further, there are major changes in the organizational culture. There is an enthusiasm about the activities in the organization as well as what the future holds. So too was the time just before the grand opening for the renovations brought about by Pei’s design. For all the initial criticism and uproar, the Louvre project was a stunning success. I.M. Pei cemented his place in history as a great architect with this project. The architecture enabled remaking the Louvre from a very old palace into a modern museum. One part of the design was to shift the feel of the Louvre from being a series of long linear buildings into a coherent U-shaped configuration with multiple views of the courtyard or plaza. The courtyard now serves as the focal point for the Louvre. Highlighting the focal point of the courtyard or plaza are the pyramids.

Dennis Sharp says:

“Of all the Grand Projects in Paris, none created such a stir as the Pei Pyramids in the courtyard of the famous Louvre Museum. Spectacular in concept and form, they provide a startling reminder of the audacious ability of modern architects to invigorate and re-circulate traditional architectural forms”


He was a quiet, soft spoken person whose influence is enormous. I.M. Pei’s unique style and vision can be seen in buildings all over the world. Each is a unique expression of the location and intent for the building. His mastery of architecture and design can also be appreciated by those of us who engage in developing architecture for organizational transformation. Pei’s contributions during his 102 years of life were enormous. He serves as a model for creativity and innovation for the rest of us.

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