By chance, I had been thinking about this very thing earlier that morning: How culture plays a role in organizational agility. After some serious thought, I believe that asking anyone to do anything with/to a culture is the wrong approach. The reason?
The term, “culture,’ has become one of those words that is so nebulous, so ambiguous, as to have nearly lost all meaning. It has become one of those words that can mean so many different things to so many different people and, as a consequence, has lost its value (that value being the ability to identify it as an item that can be identified, addressed and changed.)
Instead, we should address the components of culture. What goes into making or establishing a culture? While there are many models and assessments (e.g. Denison’s cultural survey) at a fundamental level it essentially boils down to two ingredients:
What we do
How we do it
When looking at changing or impacting a culture in some significant way, however, the “how we do it” is the most important.
To explain what I mean, I would like to use organizations who are known to have a culture of “safety” as an example. Think of any large engineering firm or Oil Major - or any organization where the health and welfare of people are at stake for that matter. These organizations did not implement a “culture of safety.” Rather, they undertook a coordinated set of efforts that over time lead to having a culture of safety. For example, they brought safety experts in to review their processes in order to identify areas of risk and to mitigate these risks. They then sustained these improvements by making this review part of their operation, so that processes are routinely reviewed, updated or retired and replaced with better industry processes. The organizations made it a management priority by identifying and tracking key metrics (e.g. “Number of days since last workplace incident”) and held their managers accountable to these figures. Managers in turn made it a priority of their teams by speaking about it at town halls and department meetings. They ensured that tasks were done safely, by empowering staff with stop work authority and doing root-cause analysis or lessons learned whenever an incident occurred. Eventually, the message that “safety is a priority” trickles throughout the organization and overtime, a “culture” is achieved.
So when faced with the challenge instilling a culture, first be clear on what type of culture the organization is trying to achieve. The leadership should be able to distill the cultural goal in a single word or short phrase such as, “safety” or “efficiency” or “creativity.” Next, focus on how they do things, that is to say, look at their processes. (Note: having no processes in place can lead to its own type of culture, one of chaos and inefficiency, but a culture none-the-less.) Identify areas in existing processes where the element can be enhanced. Areas that can be made “more safe” or “more efficient.” Then, identify new processes that can help sustain or reinforce this word as a priority.
When faced with understanding how culture will impact a change effort, look at the outputs identified above. What sustainment processes does the organization have in place? Identify what each sustainment processes is protecting. Next, look for common steps in their set of organizational processes that appear to support these sustainment processes.