Changing an Organization’s Culture for Strategy Implementation?

We often think that culture is a messy, squishy thing that we can’t really get our arms around.  And culture often makes leaders uncomfortable because they don’t feel that they can “put their finger on it”.

But there are lots of ways to measure culture these days (just spend a little time on Google or Yahoo! and you will be overwhelmed with the standardized tools, customizable assessments and consultants you’ll find).  And there are lots of companies out there that can attest to their success in building the right culture for their organization.

Just measuring and assessing an organization’s culture at a given point in time is illuminating.  But actually defining what the strategically appropriate culture is for an organization is even more helpful.  Once an organization has a desired culture in mind, and a picture of the current culture, then assessing the gaps and developing plans to close the gaps is all that it takes.

But, don’t be fooled.  Defining the desired culture for an organization sounds easier than it really is.  Getting a group of leaders together to discuss whether it is more important to follow rules or act quickly can be a touchy conversation.  Since culture is an outgrowth to a large extent of leadership, much of the culture is shaped by individual leaders’ styles and work preferences.  If you have a leader who is generally hesitant to make decisions and stick to them, then you may very well end up with an organization that talks about the same issue week after week in meetings but never lands on “what are going to do about it?”

Some think that it’s too hard to change culture… that we can’t change it even if we know what gaps we have between our current state and our desired culture.  Not true.  There are real, tactical activities and leadership actions that can shape a new culture.

For example, if the organization lacks the needed focus on customers, then insist that every manager and above spend at least one day a quarter out in the field with customers.  Or if your organization makes decisions on the fly in the absence of adequate data (not a good thing for, say, a pharmaceutical company), then insist that all projects use Six Sigma or similar tools.  Or if your organization is too cautious and can’t move quickly enough to respond to new demands (not a good thing for, say, a software company), verbally encourage teams to make decisions faster and try new things… and then throw a big party the first time one fails as visible demonstration that we appreciate and value risk-taking and new ideas.

One thing that can’t be overlooked, however, is that “closing the gap” between the current organization and the desired future organization often requires things of leaders… new communication styles, new approaches to work, new ways to lead.  This is often the hardest part.  Certainly there is some impact on culture from the structures and processes and kinds of people who work in an organization; but largely, people look up to see what kind of behavior is acceptable.  If you are up, then you are being watched whether you like it or not.

If we really want to make that strategy happen, we can’t ignore our organization’s culture.  And if that culture is not the right one to make the strategy happen, then that culture needs to change.  If we as leaders decide that we don’t want to do our part to change the culture, then we will live with the consequences of a failed strategy.


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