June 2012

Culture & Change... Culture Trumps Strategy Every Time!

"Culture hides more than it reveals and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants” – Edward T. Hall

A company’s cultural influence on any change initiative is big, and frequently not obvious or visible, unless you can step back and look at it objectively and from various perspectives.  Think of culture as the organization’s personality with beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviors and underlying assumptions.  In the last several months, I’ve had opportunities to work with leaders and companies that are each looking to create changes that will disrupt their cultures.  They want the culture to “change” as they create new processes, procedures or systems to help them reach their goals.  Unfortunately, the culture almost never adjusts automatically to fit a change initiative.  It’s usually the other way around…. And culture always wins.  It’s why so many organizational changes fail.

If, in order to achieve successful change, a requirement involves a shift in the organizational culture, a first important step is to understand the realities of the current culture (the ‘real’ one, not the one displayed on the walls).  And… for the leadership team to recognize their role in shifting their own behaviors and mindset to match the desired culture.  And that’s a tall order.

Define Your Culture

Can you accurately define your organizational culture to truly understand what needs to shift to achieve the results through your change?  I’ve asked this question to groups of leaders, and while most would say they could define their cultures, they have difficulty answering the questions I pose.  And if you can’t accurately answer these questions, you’re really not in touch with the real culture that drives the work in your company.

Try answering these questions about your company, and then ask some others in your company to answer them, and see what is revealed.  Even though there are probably many ‘sub-cultures’ a larger distinct culture will become evident.

The Physical Structure:

  • How would you describe the physical environment?  What does the physical structure (or structures) look like?  Think about the geography and multiple locations if applicable.
  • Are there offices or workstations?  What does that signify?  
  • Are the halls quiet or full of energy?  
  • How are the common areas used?  
  • What kinds of items are posted on the walls and in the offices?

The Employees:

  • How do people interact with each other?  
  • Are they happy and energized or tired and waiting for the work week to end?  
  • What gets people excited or nervous?  What’s OK and not OK to talk about?  
  • When you tell a friend what it’s like to work in your organization, what do you focus on?

The Organizational Values:

  • What is really valued in the organization and how is it demonstrated?   
  • How are decisions made and communicated?  
  • Who are the stars and heroes and why?  
  • What kinds of behaviors get rewarded?  What bad behaviors are tolerated?  
  • What kinds of stories do people tell each other?  
  • How would your customers describe your organizational culture?

The Leadership Team Behaviors:

  • Is our leadership team in alignment with our collective long-term vision around the changes?
  • What assumptions do we need to challenge or test in our thinking and behaviors around leading change in this organization?
  • Are we clear about the leadership culture we need to build in order to achieve success with our changes?  How must we be different?
And finally, once you’ve discovered your real organizational culture…. Tackle this question:

How ready is your organizational culture to respond successfully to the change?  What additional considerations do you need to address?

It’s a fascinating exercise that just may help you to see what could enable (or prevent) the important changes you’re trying to achieve in your company.

Culture does not change because we desire to change it.  Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people (and leaders) working together every day".  – Frances Hesselbein

 Struggling with leadership effectiveness or business change?
If you’re looking to enhance your leadership effectiveness and would like some help to get the results you’re looking to achieve, I’d love to talk with you. I help leaders to successfully navigate the challenges of making change to achieve the results they want. Visit my website www.terrihughes.com for details, free resources and to schedule a complimentary consultation to move you forward!



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