Can you change organizational culture?

What organizational culture might these ladies be brewing? (copyright by PumpkinWayne on Flickr)

More and more leaders understand that the “organizational culture” of their organization can have a major impact on how people work and collaborate, what they aspire to and achieve, whether they stay or leave and finally, on the bottom line (whether you are in the business of saving newborn lives or producing computers).

The automatic reaction to this insight seems to be: Let’s figure out what culture we have, what culture we want and then let’s go fix it. Just like you would fix an inefficiency in the production line. If we don’t know how to do it, we’ll hire an expert and they’ll fix it for us. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) it just doesn’t work that way. The first challenge is finding out what culture you have. Culture in and of itself is not something you can see, touch or even measure. If you don’t want to remain in fluffy-buzzword-land, you have to be more concrete than that and start talking about the expressions of culture, the behaviors, perceptions and emotions of people with regards to specific issues.
 So if you want to change organizational culture, the first task is to clarify with the person who came up with this, what exactly they are talking about, what are concrete examples of “when this happens we tend to do that” that they are not happy with. What would be some concrete storylines they’d be happier with? And once you are at it, in this same clarifying conversation you can explore the concrete actions and interventions they have tried out in the past to get there, what worked, what didn’t, how they assess the reasons for how it went. And when you are done clarifying your mandate with the responsible person, you can check if these observations, frustrations, aspirations and attributions defined by the leadership resonate at all with people on different levels of the organization.
This leads to an important point and that is history. The organizational culture is not just something that happens today but something that is like the famous Chinese hundred year old soup (or was it 1000 years?) where you have a pot on the fire in the middle of the village and people add ingredients every day as they have them available. They also eat every day from it, but never empty the pot completely, so some of this soup may well be 100 or 1000 years old. While you will never be able to extract a single ingredient added 70 years ago, each action taken by/in the organization in the past adds to the organizational culture as you find it today. And you will never get the same rich flavor by pouring out the whole content of the pot, scrubbing it down and preparing an instant soup from a packet.
A lot of people who want to change organizational culture only look at: What are the negative things about the culture we have at the moment, where does it hold us back, what are cultures of other organizations which we would prefer? Looking at your organizational culture with a historical perspective can allow you to understand that each cultural practice was once started with a good reason and if they persist, there has to be a strong reason in the organizational logic why it is still there. Take highly bureaucratic cultures. Often we see them as a pain and an impediment to getting stuff done. But they also provide stability even in situations with high staff turnover, relying on standard procedures frees time and resources to solve non-standard issues and bureaucracy comes with the promise that everyone will be treated following the same rules, no matter their informal networks or personal cunning (now, whether the promise is always fulfilled is a different question).
So to do something about persistent cultural practices which you do want to change, start by asking people with different perspectives about what the drivers behind it’s persistence are: “What are positive effects for the organization, individuals or departments within it or outside actors which come from doing things the way we do them now (give concrete example here)?” “What would who lose and gain if we started doing it this way instead of that?” Digging into this will allow you two things: Reformulate your mission as you understand what should be preserved and what should be changed. And get an idea of who you have to interact with how to get this preservation and change started.
One last thing: Culture is not something you can “make” but rather something that develops and grows. Just as it doesn’t help to pull at a flower to try to make it grow faster. So what I see as most promising is to plant a few seeds, pilot a few changed procedures or behaviors in different corners of the organization, nurture them and see what the effect is. By all means, try to get support from leadership and work on changing incentives and other big picture issues to make change easier for the people who live and create organizational culture every day. But at the same time, experiment very concretely on the ground. Often showing that “it” (whatever it is) can be done in one corner of the organization and supporting “field visits” (any kinds of interactions between those who doubt and those who have achieved it) is the strongest organic approach to culture change.
Interesting further reading:
Steve Denning writes in Forbes Magazine about using leadership, management and power tools to engineer culture change and uses the history of the World Bank as example.
In a much more organic approach, Peter Bregman describes on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network how to use stories to change the culture, even before you change incentives, structures etc.: Do story-worthy things that illustrate your envisioned new culture and let others talk about them. Find others who do story-worthy things and tell those.

3 Responses

  1. This is rally on target, from my perspective. I agree with your thoughts on taking the time to uncover the drivers of the elements in the culture you want to change. It can’t just be a slogan and some posters.

    • Thanks Melissa,
      Some of these culture change initiatives really stay at the level of dealing with the symptoms. That’s like prescribing aspirin for a brain tumor – yes, it might take the head ache away for a while, but it will not change the condition.

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