Ignore Organizational Culture at your Peril

Is this thing called Organizational Culture too vague? Too difficult to grasp? Too nebulous? It is a grave error to ignore it. Think of high profile mergers that looked superb on a spreadsheet but unraveled because no thought had been given to the very different cultures of the merging organizations. Or consider organizational transformations that have invested huge sums in new IT systems but failed to realize the promised benefits because old behaviors persisted, preventing collaboration or candidness or data-driven decision making. It can be the unspoken things that derail your expensive transformation endeavors. Using tailored approaches and proven models to develop the right culture for your organization’s strategy will hugely de-risk your investments.

We’ve all been there. You apply for your dream job, and you get the offer! You start work in this new organization. You’ve done your homework; you know the organization’s reputation and values. You’re clear about your motivations for joining. And then…

You discover that there is a whole World of Unknown about this place. There is a certain way that things are done, none of it written down anywhere. You may discover that your new organization doesn’t necessarily adopt the most efficient way of doing things. There are power dynamics at play. There is internal politics.

There is a word for this in the world of Organizational Change Management (OCM): Culture. Wait! Before you run for the exit, let’s understand what this is rationally, factually. What does the evidence tell us? How can we create the right culture to support the organization’s strategy, and how can you be more effective operating within your organization’s culture?

Understanding Organizational Culture

Let’s begin with that famous Peter Drucker quote: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. That sounds catchy and vaguely glamorous; it is nonetheless quite correct. Example: a large, global pharmaceutical organization decides to restructure, with a key goal to build a new hub in South Asia. The strategy makes perfect sense: a highly educated workforce in a more cost-competitive environment, maintaining high service standards and enabling global growth.

Here's what really happened. In the new location there was an expectation of being promoted every year, almost without exception. The job title was very important and, because annual promotions were expected, more job titles had to be created. The organization expected to maintain a culture of speaking candidly in meetings, but this required time to develop in the new structure. The strategy called for an environment in which obstacles were quickly identified and collectively overcome. In the new setup this was not consistent. What is needed, therefore, is a specific focus on defining the culture that is going to support a new strategy. This is crucial in ensuring that these kinds of challenges are addressed – explicitly and up front, not as an afterthought.

Sometimes it’s good to understand a problem from an unusual angle. Consider two Special Forces divisions of the British Armed Services. The SAS (Special Air Service) has a famous motto: “Who Dares Wins”. The perhaps less well-known but equally formidable SBS (Special Boat Service) has the motto “By Strength and Guile” – originally it was “Not By Strength, By Guile”.

These mottos or slogans tell us something about the modus operandi of these units, their preferred methods, their style, and approach. Might we say it reveals elements of their culture? Both units have objectives they must accomplish, outcomes they must deliver. But how they do it will differ. The behaviors exhibited will be different, the “accepted norms” may not be the same.

Quick Thought Experiment:

  1. “Who Dares Wins”

What do you visualize when you read this? How might decisions be made in this organization? What wouldn’t you expect to happen? What would be encouraged? What would not be tolerated? What kind of person thrives and gets promoted in this organization? What do you think are unspoken “rules” in this organization?

 

  1. “By Strength and Guile”

Now try the same questions with this.

 

  1. What thoughts do the following elicit?

“Just do it” (Nike)

“I’m Lovin it” (McDonald’s)

“Think different” (Apple)

“Breakthroughs that change patients' lives” (Pfizer)

“do more, feel better, live longer” (GSK)

One can see, therefore, that even from the few words in an organization’s slogan we can deduce something about the culture of that organization, what’s important to them and how they operate.

Let’s consider the steps involved in getting organizational culture positioned in the right way for you.

Step 1: Understand your Organization’s Culture Rationally

There are a number of proven and tested models for understanding an organization’s culture. OCM experts can conduct workshops with you to map the various behaviors that exist in your organization. Additionally, evidence-based surveys allow information to be gathered that inform us about the organization’s culture. A picture is built up and, using the right model, we can pinpoint what the existing culture in your organization is. For example, this exercise may reveal that your organization has an engineering-focused way of doing things, but this could be at the expense of having a deep focus on your customers’ needs.

Such models help to ascertain with precision what the culture of your organization is. Based on data, surveys, and workshops we can help move away from subjective descriptions of organizational culture to one that has a common language and agreed definitions. The act of coalescing around this kind of rigorous approach in fact focuses minds on what outcomes wish to be achieved, rather than endlessly debating the definition of words such as “behavior” or “norm” or “characteristic”.

Step 2: Agree on the right Culture for your Organization’s Strategy

So, we can pin down this thing called culture. And we can start to assess what kind of culture exists in our own organizations. Once we have broad agreement on what our existing organizational culture is, what then? Let’s take an example of a huge ERP global implementation in a Life Sciences organization. The driver for this may well be to transform the organization into one with leaner, more efficient processes enabled by a cloud-based technology. Invariably this results in changes to people’s roles in the organization, quite often a reduction in staff numbers, and a new way of doing things. What does this do to an organization’s culture? How often is thought given to what the “target” culture ought to be, and what kind of culture would best suit the vision and strategy for the new, transformed organization?

Best practice shows that there are two key elements in getting the culture element right. First, it is crucial that Leaders play a visible, active role. Secondly, there must be a conscious choice made as to which culture is the right one, just as a conscious choice is made whether to choose SAP or Oracle as a technology. Culture should not be an accidental outcome or an afterthought – this can lead to disastrous outcomes such as the numerous failed corporate mergers we are familiar with. Leaders should seriously think through, with experts, what culture they need to aim for. This leads to a program of work to achieve, a plan to deliver that culture.

Step 3: Incorporate Culture Change with other OCM Activities

Taking this rational approach melds with other OCM activities in the organization, such as Change Impact Assessments, in which we can incorporate and measure elements of culture. For example, we may decide that the target culture we are aiming for is a more “hard-nosed”, competitive culture. This means we would like to have more frank conversations in meetings, quickly focusing on important issues, and holding each other to account. As part of the Change Impact Assessment we would explicitly build this behavior change as an element to monitor. Equally, the role of Change Leaders would entail them demonstrating this new, desired way of interacting, and they would play a crucial role in rewarding those who embrace this new, desired approach – note: it’s about rewarding the new behaviors rather than punishing the legacy ones.

And so, in conclusion…

We can see, therefore, that organizational culture is important. For change and transformation situations in particular, ignoring culture is a mistake and can indeed lead to extremely poor outcomes. But with experienced consultants, combining proven tools with a tailored approach, you can be precise and explicit about the culture you should have for your organization. Doing so will not only de-risk your transformation, it will provide confidence and motivation for operating in the new environment.

Tenthpin_OCM

Organizational culture is an intensely serious matter. Changing a culture is difficult and fraught with risk. Here at Tenthpin we have experienced OCM consultants who operate across the full breadth of organizations, helping them to utilize the right methods and tools to ensure a successful transformation.

Perhaps our highly experienced Organizational Change Management team can help you.

Please click here to set up a call.



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written by

Jeet Bains

Advisor

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