“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” — Peter Drucker
Amen! When it comes to organizational success, culture can make the difference between reaching your goals and falling short . . . as Mr. Drucker pointed out, more so than strategy, and I believe more than hard work or innovation. Yes, it takes a clear vision, dedication, and creative ideas to succeed, but culture provides either the gas to move those things forward or the steady leak that will cause them to sputter to a stop.
The trouble is, culture is a hard thing to wrap your arms around. It can be incredibly powerful but hard to define . . . it’s about attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and norms that are reinforced over time . . . it’s the “urban legends” and unwritten rules that informally get passed on to individuals throughout the organization. Simply describing your intended culture doesn’t make it so. Rather it is philosophy and actions, repeated over time, that shape culture.
My agency is situated on a large campus, similar to many college campuses. When I first joined the organization, part of the culture was that you did not walk on the grass — you walked on the sidewalk to get to where ever you needed to go, even if that was not the most direct path. I don’t think I ever saw that rule written any where, it was just the way we did it here at Chaddock. To this day, twenty years later, and even though I had a hand in trying to change that aspect of our culture, I still occasionally twinge when I see someone cut across the grassy parade ground to get to another building. That is the power of culture.
So how do you change a culture if you can’t really define it or measure it, and you can’t dictate it from “on high”? First and foremost, I believe you have to identify a few key behaviors that you and your team consistently model. If you want to build a culture of transparency, for example, you need to repeatedly demonstrate an openness to sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly with your staff and board, rather than simply cherry-picking the information that paints the picture you desire. Pick one or two behaviors for your team to start with, and when they gain traction you can add a couple more.
Secondly, you need ask questions and listen. Why are staff carrying out a process in a way that makes no sense to you, or resisting a change that will make their lives easier? If you approach the question with the assumption that they are intelligent, well-meaning people who want the best for the organization (thereby modeling a culture you would like to foster), you are more likely to have the patience to peel back the layers to identify the reasoning behind their behaviors. “We’re required to do it that way,” is one we’ve had to battle. It seems like a plausible response given the vast number of external regulations that govern our work, but once you dig down a bit . . . Who requires it? . . . Could we look at the current rules and see if that is still the case? . . . we have sometimes found that the parameters we thought we had to work within no longer (and maybe never did) exist. As a result, a simplified process can be put into place without the resistance that comes when staff feel like you simply don’t understand the impact of a decision on a rule that “they know” they are required to follow.
Trying to shift a culture is a case of needing to go slow to go fast. Changing “the way we do things” takes time and patience but, given the momentum that you can gain as you go, it actually takes far less time and energy than battling well-intentioned resistance or fixing issues that have arisen because of attitudes or behaviors that are not aligned with who you want your organization to be.
While a leader can’t “make” a culture happen, if we want to effectively implement strategy then being aware of, and taking steps to positively impact, organizational culture should be at the top of your priority list.
It’s time for breakfast.