Achieving Value from Organisational Culture Work – Six Tips

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 ensure a culture project will achieve your 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. Related to the first, 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 abstracted aspirations represented by dot points on a Values Statement. Culture is not homogeneous. In fact, culture is really understood today as culture (analytically) and cultures (in the concrete sense1); 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 structure, 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 many alternate definitions. That said, by far and away the most common definitions and analytic uses of the culture concept involves the notion of ‘meaning’2 3. 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 are conveyed symbolically and may be ambigious – they represent ideas which may meant different ideas to different people depending on how they are decoded. An excellent example is provided by Gilbert Ryle’s ‘is that a wink, or a twitch?’4 Culture operates autonomously (in the analytical sense) – 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 often involves 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, diverse, and distinctive meanings are lost and, in our view, the value of exploring how cultures may be working in your organisation are 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 (unless, of course, the theory is well understood and bought into). 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 implementing 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 deep symbolic, binary opposite structures such as “sacred” and “profane,” analysis of these linguistic structures were most famously introduced into sociological and management sciences by Emile Durkheim5, over a hundred years ago, and have been employed by many since6. Binary opposites such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are often employed rhetorically for example in phrases such as ‘you are either 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 deliberate, creative 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, degrees of free choice. This freedom of an individual to act differently illuminates a characteristic of culture that enables innovation and change over time7.

  1. The Concept(s) of Culture
  6. See for example, and

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