The Holy Grail: How to ‘Shape’ Organisation Culture

"I'd love to meet this guy 'Culture'. He has a lot of impact around here"

“I’d love to meet this guy ‘Culture’. He has a lot of impact around here”

In a consulting career spanning 25 years, I’ve attended and facilitatied many types of organization interventions. Some were ‘cerebral’ e.g. dealing with questions like “should we enter the car insurance market and what competencies would we need to compete in that space?” Some were ‘physical’, like the time an Executive Team was instructed to dive off a boat in Thailand and swim to the beach – about 500-meters distant. One of the guys, a poor swimmer who had been convinced by his ‘teammates’ that the bay was full of sharks, became frightened and almost drowned (lesson = be careful of outdoor pursuits run by Arnold Swartznegger types). Some of the interventions focused on ‘emotions’ e.g. spending a night in an ‘Indian Tepee’ and reflecting on life’s journey. Despite the seeming diversity of the activities, a single ‘red thread’ ties many of these interventions together. They were all efforts to modify the culture of the organization, the invisible glue that binds everything else together.  The topic of ‘culture’ is a candidate for the most misunderstood feature of organization life. While many people discuss it, few understand how to intervene and change this very potent ‘lever’ of behaviour. Let’s try to dissect this.

Organization Culture: Most of us are familiar with the power of group ‘norms’ as it applies to teenagers. Example: Teenagers often want to ‘look’ the same to be part of a group (e.g. showing off Calvin Klein boxers over the top of low-slung jeans). This particular fashion trend originated in the US prison system where no belts are allowed – and eventually morphed into ‘street fashion’.  Wanting to ‘look alike’ is harmless fun; yet, the central argument here is that strong ‘group norms’ doesn’t just apply to teenagers. It has a huge impact on all of us – even if you’ve moved beyond teenage angst and prefer to keep your underwear well hidden. The basic principle = ‘group norms’ impact behaviour across all organizations. Hence the familiar definition of organization culture as ‘the way things are done around here’. While not everyone buys into the culture, the ones that don’t usually leave or are fired. In this way, ‘norms’ of behaviour and organization ‘systems’ are perpetuated over time.

Changing Culture: The central question which emerges is whether organization culture can be changed or does it pose an invisible stranglehold, an anchor against future progress? Is culture a tool that can be used by smart managers to improve organization performance? The short answer is ‘yes, it is’. We can also make this argument in reverse. If you ignore the issue of organization culture – you may be swimming hard against an invisible tide. This helps to explain the ‘Culture eats strategy for lunch’ quip (and why many change programmes fail to deliver sustainable change). So, what’s the best way to ‘intervene’ if you want to ‘change’ the culture of your organization? Is there a ‘painting by numbers’ approach that guarantees success? While the topic is complex (there are thousands of  ‘culture models’ available on the internet), we’ve developed the following 3-step process to support cultural shifts.

Step #1: Culture Mapping: The concept of organization culture comes from Anthropology – the study of culture in society. A consultant attempting to understand the culture in Google is actually on a very similar mission to an Anthropologist looking at the Fulani tribe in Nigeria. The first step is to establish the key beliefs in the existing culture (hint: There are usually less than 6; if you ‘discover’ 20, you are confusing shark and minnow issues). This can also be ‘proved’ in the negative i.e. what’s not an important part of the culture.

Example: I was asked to complete a ‘customer service upgrade’ project with a manufacturing company in rural Ireland. ‘Artifacts’ (tools and symbols), send strong signals about the existing culture and are worth observing. The company mission statement was prominently displayed in the reception area and customer service was front and centre of this. So far, so good. Until I discovered the following: The Customer Service Manager having failed his final accountancy exams, had been ‘transferred’ into this role (signal: if you can’t cut it as an accountant, we will find a home for you in customer service). The furniture in the customer service department was ‘Steelcase’ – a 2nd hand present from the engineering department who’d upgraded to something better. The customer service department was located in the mezzanine area – the only part of the plant that had zero natural light. And, as far as I could determine, no one in the past 12 years had ever actually visited a customer (travel<!–more–
budgets were ‘tight’  – but not too tight for every other function to rack up more air miles than Willie Walsh in British Airways). Yes, some things are ‘shiny on the outside’ – like donkey droppings! Was this organization committed to ‘customer service’? It wasn’t even in their ‘Top 20’.

Sherlock Holmes: The ‘science’ of culture mapping is therefore essentially detection. You detect the key elements by asking the right questions. What were the stated values of the founder or strong historical leaders? What do they believe to be the key ‘success factors’ in the organization? What scorecard is used to monitor performance? What issues are celebrated? What keeps the senior team awake at night? Typically, what type of people get ‘promoted’ (e.g. become ‘elders’ in the tribe)? In the case cited above, there was a very strong engineering culture – with a huge emphasis on innovation; everything else in that plant was secondary and everyone else (e.g. all the non-engineers) had ‘second cousin’ status; they would never be fully embraced. An interesting sub-element of this particular culture was the emphasis placed on people being positive all of the time. The customer service manager, in addition to the fact that he hadn’t formally ‘qualified’, was so negative that his US boss nicknamed him “Black Cloud” (tip: Humour in organizations is often quite instructive around explaining culture).

Step #2: Future Proofing: Sometimes organizations are clear on what they want to ‘change’ but less certain about what they want to ‘become’. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Wing-Walker Problem’. Your will be familiar with the acrobats who did aerial stunts on bi-planes (aircraft with 4 wings). For sure, they had incredible courage. But they also learned one key life lesson. Never let go of one thing until you have something else to grab onto! Changing the culture in an organisation is similar. You can’t just announce a change to the ‘things that are broken’ without communicating what you want to become. What will a ‘better tomorrow’ look like? Surprisingly, working with high-performance organizations is particularly challenging under this heading. While it’s difficult to change a company that’s struggling, it is next to impossible to change a company showing all the outward signs of success. “Without the spur of a crisis or a period of great stress, most organisations — like most people — are incapable of changing the habits and attitudes of a lifetime” (John F. McDonnell). While positive reinforcement works fine – a lot of the time – dropping the ball can often have more impact and be a greater spur to change! (at an organization and individual level).

Modified Expectations: I often tell senior teams that it’s not possible to change the entire culture; it simply doesn’t make sense. Culture is something, which is built up over time. It’s normally either the ‘shadow’ of a strong former leader (Hewlett Packard is probably the best known example) or the result of the organization learning to ‘survive’ in a particular environment over time. These issues are deeply embedded into the DNA of the organization and can’t simply be thrown overboard. In reality ‘changing’ an organization culture is an effort to identify which elements you want to ‘change’ and which elements you want to keep.

Step #3: Behaviour Modification: The final element in a cultural change programme is to plan to change people’s behaviour in line with the new expectations. This is a bit like the old joke – “how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” “Only one – but the light bulb has to want to change!” The term ‘Behaviour Modification’ may sound like a social science experiment – but isn’t that the business that all leaders are engaged in? Assuming you have solid ideas about the ‘new culture’ you want to create, what levers are available to push people towards this? In a potential long list, the following levers are potent:

Staff Engagement: People can only support what they understand. Telling the staff that you are on a mission to ‘change the culture’ may sound like something from Star Trek. Keep the language simple. And in crafting this, it might be wise to remember the adage from Blaise Pascal: “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others”. I never tire of the idea that the first principle in Psychology = ‘people don’t resist their own ideas’. Get the staff involved in shaping tomorrow and watch resistance drop away.

Performance Management: What gets measured gets attention. You need to ensure that the ‘new elements’ of the organization culture are actively on the management scorecard.

Reward Systems: Pavlov demonstrated the impact of reward and conditioning with his salivating dogs; we know that rewards reinforce behaviours. The trick is to design the reward system to drive the new behaviours (tip: Expect A? Then reward A and stop rewarding B).  Are you using less water since you started paying for it? Most people will answer ‘yes’ to this. Money is in the mix here. 

New ‘Rituals’: Some of you will remember a company called Gateway 2000. They had an operation in Clonshaugh Industrial Estate in Coolock (Dublin). Gateway, an innovative company, pioneered the sale of computers over the phone (Dell were ‘fast followers’ on this strategy and eventually became the dominant player). I had a contract to ‘train’ all of the managers in Gateway, an eclectic group of nationalities. There was one young French manager who worked in the technical services area – helping customers who called in to diagnose faults. Sometimes it was simple stuff (“did you insert the plug?”); sometimes the troubleshooting was more complex. As this service was free (customers rang a 1-800 number), the goal was to get people off the phone as quickly as possible. This manager noticed a ‘flaw’ in the ‘culture’ of the department he’d recently taken over. People did not want to share mistakes; they wanted to cover up and save face. The solution became known as the ‘biscuits meeting’. Once a month, he ran a session an everyone on the team came to a meeting. The purpose was to share/learn from the experience over the past 4 weeks. The Process: Everyone ‘around’ the table had to tell a ‘war story’ which occurred since the last meeting. i.e. what was the biggest mistake they’d made in the last month? Some of the stories were stupid; some were funny. All of them were real. At the end of the feedback, the group voted on the ‘silly story of the month’ and the ‘penalty’ imposed on the individual was that they had to buy the biscuits for the meeting (and put up with some good-natured ribbing). Through this simple idea, this manager had created ‘a safe place for dangerous truths’ i.e. making mistakes discussible and providing a way for the group to learn from this. Very Clever.

Storytelling: Since the beginning of human history, storytelling has been a powerful communications vehicle. You have to figure out what ‘new stories’ you need in your organization to reinforce the new culture you are trying to create. Who are your heroes? And how can you keep those stories ‘fresh’ and interesting?

Bottom Line: Changing the Organization Culture is a potent weapon in your continuing search for competitiveness. Despite the fact that it looks outwardly complex, don’t be scared of this journey. There’s gold at the end of this particular rainbow.


PS Lighter Notes: The Gravediggers: The Kerry Gravediggers strike is causing untold suffering. Their spokesperson was adamant that until their claims were addressed, they are only dealing with emergency cases!

Priest’s Retirement Speech (courtesy of Larry McGivern): A Priest was being honored at his retirement dinner after 25 years in the parish. A leading local politician and member of the congregation was chosen to make the presentation at the dinner. However, he was delayed, so the Priest decided to say his own few words while they waited:

“I got my first impression of this parish from the first confession I heard here. I thought I had been assigned to a terrible place. The first person that entered my confessional told me he had stolen a television set and, when questioned by the police, was able to lie his way out of it. He had stolen money from his parents; embezzled from his employer; had an affair with his boss’s wife; taken illegal drugs and was arrested several times for public nudity. I was appalled that one person could do so many awful things. But as the days went on, I learned that the people here were not all like that. I had, indeed, come to a fine parish full of good and loving people.”

Just at that point, the politician arrived full of apologies. He immediately began to make the presentation:“I’ll never forget the first day our parish Priest arrived,” said the politician. “In fact, I had the honor of being the first person to go to him for confession.”

Moral: Don’t Be Late

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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2 Responses to The Holy Grail: How to ‘Shape’ Organisation Culture

  1. laurencemcgivern says:

    Hi Paul I was’nt having any problems receiving your blogs. Still enjoy reading them and I’m learning loads.

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