I learned long ago not to ask workshop participants to define culture. This query would prompt as many definitions as there were people in the room. This lack of a common understanding about culture reflects the number of thought leaders in the field of organizational development. Your definition of culture largely depends upon the thought leader to whom you subscribe. The April 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review weighed in on the “culture” discussion by proclaiming on its cover, “You Can’t Fix Culture.” Headlines such as this can put people like me out of business. A client sent me an electronic copy of that article with the subject line, “Huh?” I knew I had to exercise due diligence about the article so I could craft an informed response before hitting the return button.
This article makes the case that when there have been organizational failures, the antidote is to work on culture. Mr. Lorsch and Ms. McTague continue with case studies of organizations that have addressed organizational challenges by working on the business, with the assumption being the culture will change accordingly. This article reinforces my belief that there are many ways to define organizational culture. In my opinion, the actions in which these organizational leaders engaged (i.e. working on the more programmatic components) are working on the culture because culture has both visible and invisible components. Think pasta, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Italian language – you know you are in Italy because of these artifacts. I agree that organizational leaders can drive the culture by focusing on the policies, the systems, the training and rewards. That said, I would argue that the result might not necessarily be the culture they want.
As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The cultural hazards reside in the invisible parts of culture. These are the assumptions and beliefs about the way work gets done that are formed by members of an organization as they learn and solve their problems. These assumptions and beliefs are then passed down to new members as the way to think, feel and act in the organization. This understanding of culture recognizes how the brain works. We know from studying the brain that repeated mental activity involves repeated neural activity and this repeated neural activity actually changes the structure of the brain. That’s why unlearning things is so hard.
Changing the culture of an organization is not an on/off switch. A senior leader cannot make the decision to train everyone and assume the training in and of itself will create a workforce that knows the right way to work. Without addressing the longstanding ways of working that become part of people's hard wiring, they will never get the desired results. My recommendation? You can’t ignore culture. Organizational leaders need to transition from what’s familiar – the more visible components of the organization’s culture — to what’s unfamiliar: these invisible components, which are largely unconscious and unspoken. When organizational leaders take the time to understand the underlying culture, they can address it and overcome it. When they don’t take the time, they will quickly find the culture is managing them.
Donning my anthropologist hat