Researchers point to a strong organizational culture as a key driver of enduring success as well as a key contributor to organizational failure. However, leaders often have a love hate relationship with their organization or team’s culture. On one level they recognize the power of shared values and beliefs and the resulting ease of communication and the reduction of operational friction. When starting an organization, leaders spend a lot of time shaping culture around their beliefs about how an organization should operate and what it should stand for. Organizations that experience success generally feel they have figured out the “culture thing” and take pride in “that is how we do things around here.” But as the organization grows and some elements of the environment begin to change, culture needs to evolve as well.

Cultures and sub-cultures

The need to evolve is not a particularly surprising discovery for organizational leaders  but when the time comes to change they are no longer dealing with a clean slate in terms of organizational culture. As the organization grew, it is likely subcultures formed around functional and geographic areas. These subcultures developed not as a form of rebellion but due to the need to adapt to their particular environment or as a reflection of their professional identity. But perhaps more challenging is that all the shared assumptions about how we operate became both deep and invisible. As an organization, it became difficult for its members to assess how the organizational culture was helping or hurting. Instead many of the business practices reflected an entrenched perspective on the best way to get things done making it hard to know if anyone was asking the right questions.

Lead the culture change

Leaders like confirmation, commitment, and loyalty. They feel affirmed and comfortable when everyone in the organization reflects the leader’s beliefs and values about how we do things around here (the culture). But this is also a very dangerous moment. The first step for cultural evolution then is that leaders need to be willing to step out of the contentment and assess how some elements of their culture may need to be modified to meet new challenges.

Assessment through Assumptions

However, cultural assessment is much more nuanced than doing a SWOT analysis. One of the reasons is that it’s difficult to know how the culture is affecting you when you are in it. While some consultants may suggest an organizational survey, Edgar Schein with his 60 plus years in the field, would say “save your money.”

He argues that no survey can have enough questions to cover all the relevant areas and employees will not know how to answer many of the questions. He recommends starting with a business problem and using that to focus group discussion to identify tacit assumptions that are contradicting espoused values.

Develop a Change Plan

Once the cultural elements are identified, the leader is positioned to develop a change plan that addresses any that are dysfunctional. Schein provides plenty of wisdom on this process in his book, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide.

Some key concepts for leaders to keep in mind.

  • Where culture is involved it is better to go slow initially and make sure you have figured out what the new way of thinking and working is and how the culture can aid or hinder before you launch the new initiative.
  • You cannot create a new culture in an organization that has already evolved a culture.
  • Always first think of your culture as a source of strength.
  • Culture is a product of social learning.
  • There is no absolute criterion for a “better” or a “worse” culture.

Cultural Change Strategies

Schein provides different change strategies based on the age and diversity of the organization. Stay tuned to find out more about these in our next article.

Organizations who can frame discussions about culture around specific business problems and the needed values and behaviors are most likely to enjoy the benefits of evolving their culture rather than the high risks, costs and length of time of cultural transformation.