A White Paper by Richard Routh, Ph.D.

President, Tri7services.com


Changing organizational culture is usually VERY challenging. There are some key insights that will help you be successful—or at least help you to understand why this is so hard, and how you can overcome the challenges.


Keep Focused on the Reasons for Cultural Change

First and foremost, it is critical to not lose track of the motivation for improving your organizational culture.  The driving realization is that there is near unanimous agreement that Peter Drucker was right when he said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” Organizations that are culturally aligned with their mission and their goals just about ALWAYS outperform the competition—no matter how good their strategic planning is.  This doesn’t mean an organization should ignore developing and implementing a good strategy, but the elephant in the room is culture. If you are culturally misaligned, your strategy will continue to be anemically executed, no matter how well you have planned and organized and resourced it. Remember: Culture is the primary driver of performance.

So, great executives focus primarily on improving organizational culture. One can hardly be a great leader without staying focused on improving culture. And don’t attempt to delegate this; senior leaders ARE the primary influencers of culture.


Behavioral Norms vs. Organizational Values

One common misstep that executives make when they attempt to shift their culture is to focus on values instead of behavioral norms. If the behavioral norms are not aligned with the value statement, then the value statement is just pretend. When we talk about “organizational culture,” we are talking about behavioral norms. So, the daunting realization that accompanies the desire to change behavioral norms is that behavioral norms are entrenched in all aspects of the history of the organization.  Once one grabs ahold of this insight, then one begins to understand why shifting organizational culture is going to be difficult. Not impossible, but clearly difficult.


Culture is Hidden 

Mark Miller (author of Culture Rules) gives the illustration of a fish swimming along with his buddies and he asks, “How’s the water today?” The other fish answer, “What is water?” You see a fish never consciously considers the concept of “water” even though everything he is and does is dependent on water. The same is true with humans and culture.  The average worker never consciously considers the concept of organizational culture even though nearly everything about their work performance is dependent on the organizational culture—which affects everything they do.


Measuring Organizational Culture is Problematic

This leads to the first challenge: Exactly how does one go about measuring their organizational culture.  After all, if you are going to change it for the better, you will have to know where you are starting.  You will need to know what parts of your culture are helpful because those are the parts you want to keep. And you will have to identify what parts of your culture need to change. As a rule, an off-the-shelf organizational culture measurement tool will not be useful. Off-the-shelf measurement tools are specifically designed to measure certain things in the cultural environment, but if those things are not the most important aspects of your desired culture, then that off-the-shelf culture measurement will likely lead you astray and have you focusing on the wrong priorities. 


How to Identify the Toxins and Desirables

So before you start measuring, you will need to identify what aspects of the culture are toxic to where you want to be, and you will need to identify what new aspects of culture would be better aligned with your goals. The answer to what cultural attributes would be best for your organization are probably unique to your industry, maybe even unique to your company.  For example, a game app development company probably wants a culture that fosters unconventional innovative creativity, whereas that might be poisonous for a company that specializes in regulatory compliance for government organizations; or one that audits financial accounting; or one that pours concrete foundations for commercial buildings.  Pixar considers that one of the important cultural norms that helps it succeed is lots of social interaction among people in the workplace who normally would not associate with each other. This is exactly what prisons do NOT want to happen.  The point being: Your goals for the optimum organizational cultural for company may well be uniquely best suited to your company.  And conversely, what really worked well for another company might not work well for your company at all.


You Will Need a Coach

But since you are probably not the best one to assess your own culture (remember the fish and the water), you will probably need some objective outside consulting or coaching to help you develop a goal culture that works well for your organization. After all, there are hundreds of knobs and dials that can be turned to fine tune an organization’s culture.  Do know what they all are?  Do you know how to tell which ones are most important for your company and its mission?

When you finally figure out what the gap looks like between where you are and where you want to be, do you know what you should be doing to effectively close that gap? It will not be obvious and again, you will want to have some good executive coaching for this phase of your organizational transformation.


3 Steps to Culture Transformation

A competent coach will help you in three areas: (1) Motivating your organization to adopt your vision of where you want them to be—this is a vision casting leadership challenge, and respecting culture shifting, it never ends; (2) Continuous reinforcement of encouraging desired change and eliminating the toxins; this is an iterative and progressive process and it takes perseverance on the part of senior leadership; (3) Remember that no matter how well you plan, things change organically. Which is to say, each new event informs the next, so it is important to keep constant watch on what is working and what is not and what needs fine tuning and respond accordingly.  An effective leader will learn how to watch and listen well and make adjustments based on how the workforce is assimilating the new cultural changes you desire.  

Culture is challenging and it will drift and degrade if not maintained. Senior leadership can never quit being intentional about culture.


Risk Assessment and Mitigation is Key

Here is another important insight: In order to change organizational culture, the workforce must be willing to abandon the status quo. But often the perceived risk to do so is too high for the average worker. Leadership must develop a workable plan for changing the perceived risk so that the average worker in the organization is willing to abandon status quo. This CAN be done without pain, but that takes wise and subtle finesse by senior leadership. 


Perceived Trust in Leadership is Essential

What people trust, and who people trust, is the prevailing indication of how well cultural change will work in your organization.  One take-away here is that effective cultural change often precludes replacing much senior leadership—you need to play the long game. Focus on changing people’s expectations of acceptable behavior (not changing the top couple senior leadership levels).