“Culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass – you don’t see it, but somehow it does something.”
Haacke (1987) quoting Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Organisational Culture is widely talked about across a wide variety of public and private organisations, typically as something that needs changing or improving. What actually is Organisational Culture, can you change it and if so, just how do you go about changing it?
Many of the conversations about Organisational Culture describe the desired culture, for examples:
“We need a culture for innovation” – “We need a can-do culture”
….yet very few of these conversations are able to articulate the prevailing organisational culture, which is vitally important, as the three key steps for changing culture are:
- Know your existing organisational culture (measure and articulate in practical terms);
- Articulate the desired culture (in tangible / practical terms);
- Identify the gaps between the existing and the desired culture (draft a plan for change)
Step 1 – Know your existing organisational culture (measure and articulate in practical terms)
The majority of organisations that try to change the organisational culture bypass step 1, either through ignorance, or impatience. When you think about it, using an analogy, if you wanted to navigate a journey from A to B, you have to know where point A is to plot the journey. If you don’t, you will be disorientated. That’s the same with Organisational Culture change, we need to know the start point (the existing culture).
You don’t so much change culture as nurture the culture, but you can elicit a shift in culture – you influence the culture to change by changing the organisational climate.
When we talk about the existing culture, there is rarely one single culture within an organisation, rather there are multiple cultures. When assessing the prevailing culture(s), it is important to be able to discern the individual cultures – let’s explain. If you aggregate responses from all staff (assuming there’s just one culture), you’ll be painting a picture of a culture that doesn’t actually exist. This would be an average of all of the cultures, but not identifying and quantifying the individual cultures. These individual cultures are known as subcultures, only because they are a sub-component of the whole organisation, not to be taken as a derogatory term (the term subculture was used from the 1960s to describe individual cultures that rebelled against mainstream society).
Quantifying the individual subcultures then allows for their own existing culture (often unique) to be compared to the desired culture, so any gaps can be identified and plans to shift (change) the individual cultures to be drawn-up. What this typically reveals is that some of the cultures require shifting in one area or direction, whilst others in another direction. This is not only a much more targeted approach, it’s also quicker to shift the cultures and less costly.
We are able to assess the prevailing organisational culture(s) and quantify the culture(s) in tangible terms, which provides practical results across several categories. We can identify the individual subcultures and compare their differences. We can compare cultures by hierarchical level and we can assess the overall culture and show where the subcultures sit. Our assessment methods were scientifically developed and tested with organisations, by two of our organisational culture specialists (culture PhDs), yet provides very accessible and down to earth results.
Step 2 – Articulate the desired culture (in tangible / practical terms)
We help senior management articulate the organisational culture(s) they desire using the same categories that we use for the assessment process. This allows for the results from the culture assessment to be directly compared to the desired culture. This is done using plain and simple language.
Step 3 – Identify the gaps between the existing and the desired culture (draft a plan for change)
By comparing the results of the organisational culture assessment to the desired culture, we identify the cultural gaps, by category and by subculture, as well as identifying a priority order for the gaps to be addressed. We then create a list of recommended and practical actions, by subculture that once undertaken, will start to shift the cultures towards that desired. We also propose sustainability actions that will keep fostering the desired culture(s). Typically, twelve months after the host organisation has implemented the culture development actions, we repeat the culture assessment. We can show how and how much the culture(s) have changed and developed and identify any remedial and maintenance actions necessary at that stage. We work with and support senior management to help, guide and where appropriate mentor them in the implementation detail for culture changing actions.