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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

Many people become so overwhelmed at the notion of transforming their entire organization that they never get past thinking about it. Think much smaller.

Molecular Transformation Begins at Home

Originally Published: 12 October 2007
Last Updated: 31 October 2020

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If you’ve ever eaten lemon meringue pie (it helps if you enjoyed it, but it’s not essential), the following thought should make some sense to you. It’s even better if you’ve made lemon meringue pie, but I think I can get the non-pie-bakers past the lack of experience.
Over the years, colleagues and I have discussed at great length what is necessary, in terms of critical mass, to effect genuine cultural buy-in. Sometimes the person who initiates the conversation is somebody who wants to make a difference in their company, but suspects their individual commitment is insufficient. Sometimes a new executive wants to create greater cohesion, and is daunted by the task of bringing his or her staff around. I have known the particular joy of working with an entire management team who was committed to one another and to cultural buy-in. But even with an entire management team on board, cultural buy-in is tough to gain.
This article isn’t about the countless issues that get in the way of cultural buy-in, though the list is long: mavericks who eschew committing to the group, senior management who will talk the talk but can’t walk it, dysfunctional players who get satisfaction from disrupting emerging cohesion, and an assemblage of individuals who for a variety of reasons related to intellect, interest, or initiative simply don’t get it. That list will always exist, and focus on eradication of the barriers to cultural buy-in will not lead to success.
No, the only successful approach is to focus on core change, similar to the molecular change that occurs in baking. When you make the filling for a lemon meringue pie, you start with sugar, flour, lemon juice, water, and egg yolks. When you mix these ingredients together they start out pasty, but then they become watery. The first time you make lemon meringue you wonder how you’ll ever achieve that tart filling the consistency of thick jam. As you stand over the stove, stirring assiduously, the heat becomes annoying and you become convinced that you have forgotten an important ingredient – the “gelling” one, whatever that is. Then it happens. Molecular transformation. The hot thin liquid changes – and rapidly – into the translucent gel you have been despairing of achieving.
If you don’t stir it with enough enthusiasm, it burns before it transforms. If you don’t take it off the heat at precisely the right moment, it won’t have that velvety mouth feel. And if you let it cool in the pan instead of putting it into the crust and topping it immediately with meringue, the meringue (yet another molecular transformation waiting to happen) will become watery and weak. All these possible catastrophes without a single substitution of ingredient.
Cultural buy-in is sort of like that. Ingredients are important – if you don’t have the right ingredients you can’t achieve the desired chemical interaction (in baking, that is). Quantities are important too. There is magic in finding the right mix of personalities and talents.  Quantity is important for another reason as well. If you have a business with 20 people, nearly all 20 need to be bought in, because one or two people represent such a significant percentage of the whole – very different mathematics from the business with 500 people, or 1,000, or 45,000.
But what really matters is how the ingredients come together. Whether you are a member of a team, the head of a team, a manager of a department, or the leader of a division, what you try to do is create molecular transformation with a core group. The more willing participants you have, the merrier. But even if you just start with a few people, if you can achieve cohesion, visible purpose and enthusiasm among them, others will be drawn to that energy.
What each organization needs is a nucleus of committed folks. Committed to the company vision, company culture, and one another. That nucleus will attract others to it over time. Not everyone will buy in, but if the center holds, not everyone has to. Is the right percentage 10%? 15%? 35%? It depends on the company and on the dynamism of the group of people who embrace the culture.
Too many people become so overwhelmed at the notion of creating cultural cohesion throughout an entire organization that they never get past thinking about it. Think much smaller. Think much closer to yourself. Molecular transformation begins at home.

(c) 2007, Andrea M. Hill