You should know this about Organisational Culture!

There are two primary perspectives on culture, on the one hand there is a view that a culture can be broken down into its different components, and as a result can be built quite deliberately with a plan and focused execution. The other view is that it is a complex idea, and has no specific constituent parts, but is more of an evolving and dynamic phenomenon (much like the human beings that create it).

I subscribe to the latter perspective, but many in business don’t. Hence the question that many CEO’s and HR professionals ask me – how can we create the culture that we need for the future? My response is invariably a polite ‘well, you can’t!’

At this point they mutter and protest, and begin to wonder whether I am the right partner on such a pursuit. What they don’t realise is that to misunderstand their role in culture evolution could potentially cost them their job. Yes, they may be planting the seed of a culture implosion and resistance.

There may be just two questions to ask:

  1. What can I do as a leader to amplify aspects of our current culture that serve us?
  2. And how can I diminish aspects of our current culture that undermine us?

You see, organisational culture may ‘just be’ – it is what it is – and it responds to small flexes and shifts, but generally is embedded and persistent (and quite unshakable).

Culture is also not as universal as you might think. In every organisation there is a primary culture, much like the trunk of a tree, and then numerous sub cultures, much like the branches of that tree. Wherever there are influential leaders across the organisation and geographical spread, we expect to experience variations of the primary culture. It seems that team leaders decide how to interpret and role model the primary culture and naturally amplify and diminish aspects of the primary culture to suit their ends. Again, I have known the odd CEO to gasp in disagreement; ‘More than one culture? We only have one single culture, I would know, I am the leader here!’ they again protest.

Oh boy!

Yet again, leaders are unaware of just to what extent that attitude could shatter their dreams of executive glory. The existence of sub cultures is in itself not problematic, provided they aren’t brazenly oppositional and counter culture.  If they are however simply variants of the primary culture (they still share more in common than not) research suggests that the more the dominant culture distances itself and indeed bullies the sub culture, the more likely people will disengage and leave. However, organisations that embrace the sub cultures and utilise them as innovation hubs for the evolution of their primary culture seem to have capitalised on the value of the differences. It’s a case of primary AND sub cultures existing together.

It takes a mature leader to embrace this quintessentially complex human phenomenon of culture and work within the grey areas. To what extent do your leaders (or you the leader) thrive in those grey areas?

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I didn’t know much about culture!

They say ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast!’ They say it with such conviction, often as a precursor to their own philosophy on leadership and the future. They say it often, almost as much as I have said it.  I have sat through countless meetings with senior executives who claim high expertise and command of the topic, and we all seem to nod and smile in anticipation of the great work we will do together.

And then I began reading, not HBR or a clutch of online articles and trendy business magazines but hard, empirical research; and I have been self-muzzled. I don’t cough out that slogan anymore. I swallow back the one liners and pop MBA catch phrases and admit ignorance. But the more I read and learn, the more it makes organisational culture and the work within that space unexpectedly rich, diverse and certainly more complicated. As an advertising executive shared with me recently; ‘without strategy, culture is just a party and a fussball table’.  Spot on, and also just laughing at the surface of the topic.

No matter the levels of ignorance, it seems many leaders seem to be asking the same questions; how do we create the best culture? What type of culture do we need? How do we implement successful culture change? Who will best fit our culture? And on and on they ask.

All these questions are pertinent but also based on a handful of flawed and torpedo-like assumptions. 1. That a culture can in fact be changed, or deliberately created; and 2. That culture is a singular, organisation-wide phenomena.

Research offers the more useful assumptions, 1. Culture is always present and can vary across an organisation; 2. It is almost impossible to change, and 3. We don’t yet understand who or what influences its genesis over the life cycle of an organisation.

Nonetheless, it seems that the rising interest in organisational culture has much to do with its association to a unique competitive advantage, and thus some form of enduring relevance. That is an important insight, and is based on the following, research backed findings:

  1. A culture’s dimensions are difficult for competitors to imitate;
  2. A culture possesses rare and unique qualities;
  3. A culture is cumulative and generates upward momentum;
  4. A cultures sources are interconnected to form part of a whole;
  5. A culture can be renewed faster than eroded

What exactly does that all mean? In the course of my next batch of blogs, I will be sharing a perspective on culture that may be more useful than what you currently think you know. Stay tuned!