Your organizational culture comes from years of interactions between the participants of the organization, where most of them are, probably, already gone and what lives is their myth and the interpretation of that mythology that current employees make of it.
Every organization has a foundational myth. The myth that tells the story of how the “founding fathers” devised and created something that endured through the years.
Sometimes their mission still holds true, sometimes its changed to something they wouldn’t even recognize. Big socio-economic changes, mergers and labor disputes all have the potential to take an organization’s culture to hell.
Changing corporate culture is one of the most daunting tasks you’ll ever endure. It takes time, lots of follow up work and cooperation across the board (which is not usually easy to obtain).
When you try to change culture, you are attempting to change a paradigm.
The three cultures
Let me debunk your first preconception. Your company doesn’t have an organizational culture: it has 3.
We can call the first type of culture Formal Culture. It’s the one that appears on paper. The one your HR, maketing and internal communications teams take so much time to work on by writing policy, sending emails and designing flyers and screensavers. It’s the one reflected on your company’s vision and mission statements. It’s been built throughout the years since your company’s age of mythology.
A word about this type of organizational culture: it only exist on paper and nowhere else. More on this later.
The second type we can call it Perceived Culture. It’s the one that usually the upper levels of the company think as the actual one -when actually there is no actual culture-. It’s also what external clients think of the company, what it stands for and how it feels working there or working for those people (your people).
The third and last type, is the Operating Culture; and here’s when things get messy.
The Operating Culture is the “real one”. It’s a mix between the Formal, Perceived Culture and something else completely different and way more complicated. If you thought that having 2 cultures operating under the same roof was complicated, adding this third variable will make your head hurt.
Let me try to put this in words that make sense.
Focus on your company’s organizational chart, the pyramid.
I’m paraphrasing Wikipedia now:
I know many will feel tempted to flame any reference to Marx. But, if you think there are no conflicts between “classes” in your organization, then stop reading and wake up.
Your organizational culture relies on every link of the chain. Wherever there’s a short circuit between an employee and his manager, or between a manager and a director, or a director and senior exec, take for granted that culture won’t operate as desired, specifically in that sector of the company.
To complicate things even more, each area is not a sealed compartment, so expect that those conflicts will trickle down onto other areas, polluting culture even more.
What these conflicts lead to, are parallel micro-cultures across your business based on leadership styles and the relationship dynamics between the employees of a given sector.
When this happens, corporate culture gets disfigured.
A parallel culture entails a parallel mission and vision. The formal mission and vision becomes a joke for employees, who usually end up mocking it and those who represent it -higher ups-.
Meanwhile, execs live in happy ignorance, assuming that the culture they promote is the one that is operating. They become the joke, leadership gets undermined and you can kiss your pipe dream of a healthy and jolly organizational culture goodbye.
Getting out of the pit
Take a good look at your workplace and then talk to everyone. And by everyone I mean the janitor, the cadet, your lieutenants, the guy that brings coffee in the morning… everyone. Get their input and ask them about what they feel about the company, what they think culture is and what it means.
Given, they may feel intimidated and that’s why many organizations resort to independent contractors -like me, wink, wink- to do that job.
If you are high up in the pyramid, go undercover. Trust me, the majority of the employees would only know you by name so unless your face is plastered in flyers and pictures on the walls, they won’t recognize you.
Plan C, get one of your Jr. HR reps to do the job. Don’t send him as a mole, if needed make clear the message that the company wants to change and everyone’s input is needed.
Still, we are not even started. This is just one way for you to tap the waters.
A reason culture fails
We can safely say that culture fails when Formal Culture has too much distance from the Perceived and Operational Culture. When they all have different objectives and serve different causes and individuals, then everyone starts going by their own culture or their areas’ micro-culture.
In my experience, when you start looking deep into an organization’s guts, what you notice is that culture is not effectively adopted because the way to implement it is using a downward communications channel.
Culture is transmitted from above which translates into being something felt as imposed to those not involved in the creation process. I know we all create culture just by the fact of being there; when I say creation process, I refer to those who actively promote its creation.
What we need to generate is an upward communications channel, to allow cultural memes to flow between hierarchies in an equal manner. This ascending channel will be configured through homo-heterogeneous “peer” groups.
Starting cultural change
In broad terms, these are the steps that need to be taken in order to start changing your company’s culture.
- Interview everyone
- Identify what the 3 types of cultures are in your company
- Create heterogeneous/homogeneous focus groups or think tanks. This will be the cornerstone of your endeavor
- Dismantle your culture in the drawing board and analyze its elements: what’s working, what’s not, what is Perceived, what is Formal and what is Operating culture
- Make an intervention (will not be covered in this article) and analyze it with your OD team
- Redefine mission and vision if needed, new processes and bureaucracy and create a deployment plan for your new formal culture
- Set short and long term goals
- Start deployment
- Utilize focus groups and think tanks to assess progress
- Trim deployment
- Rinse and repeat 9 and 10 until desired outcome is achieved
How to effectively design your desired culture
Step 3 is about creating focus groups which will operate outside of the organizational chart, a separate body from the pyramid. These groups’ task will be to outline the new culture and they will require a specific configuration.
The goal is to make these groups homogeneous and heterogeneous at the same time. Paradoxical? Yes, and this is how you resolve the paradox.
By heterogeneous I’m not just referring to gender, race and/or cultural background. These groups should be comprised of employees of different hierarchies. To make these groups homogeneous, what you need to do is to blur their differences, but not erase them. By this I don’t mean cross dressing employees or painting them black, white or purple to make them look alike. What has to be blurred are hierarchies and structures of power.
You do this by grouping multiple hierarchies from different areas of the organization.
Say that your Marketing department works tightly with HR, then your HR guys would group up with the Purchasing people with which they don’t usually work, and the Marketing guys with IT staff.
The idea is to make the power dynamics within groups that are used to work together, unfamiliar. This way, your HR Jr. Analyst will be teaming up with the Purchasing Manager -and others, of course-. They still have different hierarchies but they are not used to interact with each other, which will level the dynamics of their interactions.
The second thing to take into account when arranging groups is to, as Guy Kawasaki puts it, dress for a tie. It’s no news that the way we dress influence the way we are perceived by others. Having everyone dress casually for the meetings will help blur the differences (without eliminating them) even more. You can use casual Fridays for these meetings in order not to disrupt daily operations and violate dress code.
As I mentioned at the beginning, changing an organization’s culture is time consuming, requires a lot of effort from multiple areas of the organization and willingness to cooperate. This last factor can be the most difficult one to achieve, specially during times of crisis, so timing when to start a cultural change process is of utmost importance.
Have you ever been through cultural change experiences? On which side of the trenches were you? Did it work? What was missing to make it work?
Image credit, Kay Kim