Why does the culture of your organization matter? It matters to the extent that it is supporting or holding you back from being all you can be, solve a critical problem, or take advantage of an important opportunity.
Let’s coin the term OCQ to stand for Organizational Cultural Quotient or Intelligence, which is the capacity to understand your organization’s culture and to continuously hone and focus the culture to maximize its positive impact on your organizational effectiveness. What’s your OCQ? How would you develop it?
Just to remind you what exactly we are talking about when we say organizational culture let’s use John Kotter’s simple definition: group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place. But culture is complex, and it can involve multiple layers of sub-cultures in different groups, functions, and locations within the organization. These norms and values matter because they exert both positive and negative forces on what you are trying to accomplish in your organization. And changing any of these will be somewhere between very difficult, if your OCQ is high, and impossible otherwise.
The time to do cultural work is when you are facing a crucial challenge or opportunity, and the work starts with Cultural Assessment and eventually moves to Cultural Modification.
I have explained in previous articles that Cultural Assessment includes naming your “real” core values along with your accidental (unintentional and possibly negative) values. You can begin this process by evaluating the many behaviors and even symbols that are widely accepted, what Edgar Schein calls your “artifacts,” then comparing those with your espoused values, identifying the gaps, and finally digging into the shared assumptions that are behind those gaps.
How does this all fit into your normal Strategic Planning process? My approach to Strategic Planning starts with assessing alignment with your Business Plan by doing a “Mission Gap Assessment,” which is simply asking how effective you are in each element of your mission. A Cultural Gap Assessment can actually fit very nicely into this process.
The next part of strategic planning is to brainstorm ways you can close the gaps between your mission and your actual outcomes. Adding culture to this picture, you can do the same with the gaps you have found between your espoused values and your shared assumptions.
The next step in strategic planning is to determine which of all of the potential actions should become the “Big Rocks” that you will focus on right now. If the Cultural Modification area rises to this level, then this becomes a part of your Strategic Plan. But be very careful here. You are not going to be able to change multiple aspects of an organizational culture, so select the narrow aspect of the culture that is blocking you from your desired outcome (problem or opportunity). Putting this all together, the overall pathway looks like this:
Business Plan ->Mission Assessment + Cultural Assessment -> Strategic Plan (including Cultural Modification)
Now we come to the very hardest part, which is shaping this cultural Big Rock into a plan and executing that plan to actually lead to Cultural Modification. One of your greatest assets to changing a cultural behavior will be other cultural behaviors that are more supportive of your desired outcome. How can you leverage those to change the one area that must change?
But there’s a formula you will have to satisfy, according to Edgar Schein: Survival Anxiety will have to be greater than Learning Anxiety. Survival Anxiety comes from a threat, risk, or opportunity that requires the cultural change, and Learning Anxiety comes from fear of incompetence, loss of identity or social group, etc. And it’s critical that you achieve this status by decreasing the Learning Anxiety and not by increasing the Survival Anxiety. In all change we must take the emotions of those involved into account, but in the case of cultural change, it’s probably even more critical.
I recently experienced all of this while facilitating strategic planning with a non-profit organization. The incentive for the planning was CEO succession and the desire to become a healthier organization in order to attract an excellent new leader. Three potentially harmful cultural issues were uncovered, and the one selected as a Big Rock was in the area of leadership communications (not following organizational channels, going around others’ backs, and negative talking). The negative impact was explained and discussed, a leadership behavior document was drafted, voted on, and approved, and key leaders all are signing the document from that point forward. As of this date, it has been tested and affirmed, but real cultural change will take that happening many, many times over.
So how is your OCQ? If you follow these steps, it could climb significantly.
The preceding thoughts come from my work with organizations, multiple articles and books on culture, and especially a helpful book called The Corporate Culture Survival Guide by Edgar Schein.
John Purcell is an organizational health coach, helping leaders and their organizations to be more transformational through courageous leadership, cohesive teams, effective boards, aligned strategy, and focused execution.
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