Evoked best by the quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast” enquiries into an organisation’s culture have become almost standard fare. A plethora of books, academic research and, of course, consultants have added to both the drive to understand culture’s impacts in an organisation while also contributing to the mystification of the concept itself.
We’ve put together the following tips with the goal of helping sponsors of organisational culture projects avoid some of the most common pitfalls.
#1. The first tip is to establish a goal. Before embarking on a culture study or culture change project be very clear about what you expect from your investment. What will be materially different once the project concludes? What will be the same? Is culture really at the heart of what you are trying to achieve, or might there be another factor that you should be focusing on instead?
#2. Untangle Culture. The second tip is to understand the difference between culture and the many other concepts often conflated with it. Let’s start with what culture is not; it is not behaviour. While culture can, and often does influence action, it is not the only influence of behaviour. So, if a behavioural change is your goal, you may well be served by separating out the underlying behavioural causes first, and then deciding if culture is where you want to focus. Culture is not values. Values may be cultural, often they are simply dot points on a Values Statement. Culture is not homogeneous. In fact, culture is really understood today as cultures; many, fragmented, and even contradictory. Consequently, the idea that an organisation has a (singular) cohesive culture does not align with current understandings of the concept. Further, culture is not, analytically, the same as the many conflated concepts and dimensions with which it is often confused such as material, social, power, emotions, identity, interests etc. A culture project should distinguish culture from these other concepts, enabling an organisation to address change effectively and efficiently whilst minimising potential negative consequences.
#3. Clarify the culture concept. This leads to the question ‘what is culture?’ Before answering that question it is important to point out that culture is a concept and as such it may be used differently by different researchers – there are alternate definitions. That said, by far and away the most common definitions and analytic uses of the culture concept involve the notion of ‘meaning’. Meanings refer to our understanding of what the world is and how it works. Meanings provide explanations and comfort in the face of ambiguity and guide us in acting a certain way in a given context. Meanings signify symbolically – they point to other meanings of significance beyond the physically present one. An excellent example is provided by Gilbert Ryle’s ‘is that a wink, or a twitch?’1 Culture operates autonomously – it has a life of its own beyond individual cognition, a characteristic that is critical to consider when designing any culture project. Different groups may align with slightly or vastly different meanings while closely sharing other meanings – hence the fragmentary notion mentioned above. Meanings structure and thereby influence action (see tip 6); some meanings may be more ‘valued’ and influential while others are easily set aside and changed.
#4. Don’t get stuck with the wrong method. A fourth tip relates to the idea of ‘measuring culture,’ a project some consultants recommend. Assuming there is agreement that culture is meanings, as outlined above, the idea of “measuring” these meanings involve their qualitative nature to be transformed into a measurable quantitative metric. To do this an analyst must create taxonomies, that, essentially, increase the level of abstraction so that similar ideas can be equated with each other. The unfortunate consequence of such work is that significant amounts of the local, distinctive meanings are lost and, in our view, the value of exploring how cultures may be working in your organisation is lost too. We are of the view that, to be of benefit to an organisation, a study of culture is best conducted as an interpretive study of meanings as distinct from a quantitative study of variables used as a generalisation of the culture concept. Of course, the process of choosing an approach/method should align with achieving your goal (see tip 1.)
# 5. Understand culture change. No discussion on culture would be complete without answering the question ‘can leaders change culture?’ The short answer is yes, managers can change culture but it’s a qualified yes. The fifth tip, then, speaks to this qualified yes. Where cultural traces are unique to an organisation, those in the organisation can, over time, update those cultures. By way of a hypothetical (and stylised) example – an organisation that, over a period of time, has attempted an M&A that failed, implemented an ERP system that ran into trouble, and suffered a failure of a newly released product will likely have cultures of risk that negatively impact future change work. These histories can be rewritten with thoughtfully designed projects, and, with success, the cultures of failure can be narrated as catalysts for learning and new approaches.
#6. Don’t get caught up in cultural traps. A sixth and final tip relates to the idea that organisations can have good or bad cultures. The irony of such a proposition is that “good” and “bad” are, themselves, culturally subjective meanings-based evaluations. These ‘good/bad’ meanings relate to the deep symbolic structures “sacred” and “profane;” linguistic binary opposites that establish a dichotomy most famously introduced into sociological and management sciences by Emile Durkheim2, over a hundred years ago, and by many since3. An equivalent, subjective notion is to claim money as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and that’s a notion, most would agree, is preposterous. This idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is transformed into rhetoric in examples such as ‘you are with me, or against me’ and ‘no, that’s not the right way.’ Such proclamations are also reductive, masking the complexity of the situation and should alert you to culture’s attempts to mislead.
To conclude this short series of tips it’s important to convey that culture is influential but that it does not override agency. In other words, while we humans lean on culture to make sense of what we do, to help in choosing how to act, we retain, in the final act, free choice. This freedom to choose is one characteristic of culture that facilitates its adaptability and allows it to change over time.
- See for example, https://academic.oup.com/edited-volume/34458 and https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0170840600214004?icid=int.sj-abstract.citing-articles.79
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