Executives know that their organization’s culture is critical to their business success, but many hate to do anything about it, putting it off as long as possible. It’s like flossing—you know it’s important; but you are busy, and it takes a long time to realize the benefits.
But how do you know if the culture you have is the culture you need? This can be a bothersome question, if not somewhat seditious. After all, off-sites were attended; consultants consulted; brains brainstormed; visions envisioned; missions trumpeted; and world-class, cutting-edge, competitive-advantaged strategies rolled out. This is the triumphant output of an exhausted executive team, leaving culture overlooked or assumed to be compliant.
Attention and resources are directed at those projects that are lined up to roll-out the strategy. But lurking silently in the shadows is the organization’s culture waiting to quietly strangle anything that goes against its specific way of doing things. You know, it’s like plaque.
Groups of Humans = Culture
The problem with culture is that it involves humans. Groups of humans generate culture; something that is basic to the way they think and behave but for the most part they are only vaguely aware of what they have generated. They just can’t help themselves—groups of humans are culture-generating.
Culture is all-pervading. It is amorphous. It is hard to find because there is no sharp edge to locate and measure.
How to Snub Your Pesky Culture
Managing culture requires having a clear vision of the organization and a workable strategy to realize that vision. Translating strategic goals into daily actions and behaviors is the crux of managing culture. Organization culture is always happening and always supporting or impeding your business results.
But if you are overloaded with projects and initiatives that are easier to measure, here are some alternate approaches for dealing with or not dealing with culture. Try them at your own risk.
- Eliminate all humans from the organization. This may be a few years off for most organizations but something to strive for.
- Launch a major reorganization. Draw up a new org chart, change reporting relationships, realign functions, collapse departments into each other, split departments up—the key thing is to really shake things up and hope what falls out somehow makes a difference.
- Declare the culture you want and consider it done. Write it up on a nice poster and forget about it. Everyone will fall into line. Parents know this is how to raise children. This also creates a paper trail that shows that you did do something about culture and you can check off that box.
- Let the culture grow organically. Let whatever shows up in the culture take root and flourish. Over time this approach will allow you to do away with the work of coming up with things like a vision and a strategy because the culture will grow things like that for you, whether you like what it comes up with or not.
- Delegate the job of culture. Assign someone to fix the culture. Give them a title and the responsibility for developing the required culture. But do not give them any resources or authority. No one will blame you when the existing cultural anti-bodies consume the gold-plated strategy your team worked so hard to craft.
- Adopt magical thinking. If your intentions are good, only good things can happen. Think good thoughts about your organization, and it will be transformed into the organization you imagine you have.
- Blame, terminate and hire fresh. Regularly fire specific people because something is not working right. The new hires will fix the problem. If that doesn’t work, fire them and hire the next fixer-uppers.
- Be rigidly bottom line. Unless there is a clear ROI on culture change activity, assume that there is no benefit to be realized and keep doing only those things can be neatly measured. Culture change takes time; so be sure to use small enough time frames for your analysis. This allows you to dismiss any future efforts to work on culture.
Allocating attention and resources to developing the culture that supports your strategy and business goals takes vision and commitment and involves risk. It is easier to delay culture activity and hope for the best. You probably know of some businesses that never bothered with any culture development activity, and they are just fine. You also probably know of someone who never flosses and has a beautiful set of gums and teeth.
How to Culture a Culture
While culture change is not effortless, it can be managed. If you have tried any or all of the above approaches and are still stuck without the organization you need, there is a proven approach to changing your culture. Here are some tips to get you started.
- Get a snapshot of your culture. There are many ways to measure culture, but you can’t change what you can’t see. Getting a comprehensive picture of your organization’s culture—at all levels—will help make conscious what is really going on in your organization. Most executives have an idealized and distorted view of their organization’s culture. Without a clear picture, you don’t know what is working and what isn’t.
- Determine the culture you need that will support your core values, vision and strategy. Your culture needs to align with the behaviors needed to successfully execute your strategy.
- Identify the key elements of your current culture that need to come into alignment to support the culture needed to execute your strategy. Don’t choose too much. Only one to three of the best high-leverage changes should be attempted. Executives’ plates are full, and the last thing you need is to overload with a host of “culture change initiatives.”
- Own the culture change effort. Don’t make it a Human Resources project. Leaders are responsible for stewarding the organization’s culture. People look to leaders for how to act, behave and make decisions. If you don’t own the culture change effort, no one who is following you will either.
Changing an organization’s culture takes time, perseverance and awareness. Once you start attuning to your culture, you will begin to see it more clearly. You will then be able to make the necessary changes to mold your culture into one that supports your strategy.
Remember, you may or may not be paying attention to culture,
but culture is paying attention to you.
You know, it’s like plaque.