Sep 062010

blij teamTo change organizational culture seems to be a hot topic nowadays. Searching the forums you can find many debates about it. This blog will inform you about organizational culture and how to change it. I’ll gladly share my experience with you here. I am Marcella Bremer MScBA. I’ve been working as a consultant in the field of organizational culture for many years and I find it interesting and fascinating. It’s all about the human factor in groups: It can do magic but on the other hand, it could just as well ruin results…

You’ve probably heard about the 70% failure rate of change: great change programs that were never really implemented because of resistance or disinterest or weariness or simply being too busy. You’ve probably once exerienced the joy of working with great colleagues or suffered the annoyance of a bully boss. You’ve heard the HR department worry about retention and employee motivation. Top executives complaining about performance and hiring OD consultants. You’ve sensed the boredom of front desk staff when you called customer support. Or on the contrary, you’ve enjoyed being served very well, even above expectations.

That is all organizational culture. It’s how we do things around here. And we do things in our special way, because we share some assumptions about reality. “We think serving customers is a challenge. Or we find our clients a nuisance, keeping us from work.” These, often subconsious beliefs, shape our common behavior. And even if they didn’t, our co-workers or executives would. People tend to condition each other’s behavior. We copy and correct each other. If you want to belong to this group: don’t differ too much! If you want a bonus: meet your bosses’ criteria! If you want to have a career, you’d better fit in here.

Organizational culture provides a group with:

  • Self-assurance: “this is how we see things, this is our target, these are our criteria, this is right, and that is wrong”
  • Speed: “we only need a few words and don’t need to check with each other all the time”
  • Familiarity: “we belong together, we fit in, everyone here is like me”

So we share assumptions and shape each other’s behavior to do what we do. And that’s what gets us our results. It’s how we perform. It’s what hampers or enhances performance, change, retention, motivation, climate, management style, customer satisfaction, turnover and profits. It’s as simple and complicated as that. It’s the group’s multiplier effect: the leverage to magic or disaster.

Do you need more arguments to look at organizational culture change seriously…? That’s the why of organizational culture. Sometimes you just can’t afford not to change it.

But how could you work with and change organizational culture? It’s such a subtle and yet fierce group process. It’s so comprehensive. It’s about everything, so where would you start? And how would you know what you were doing? You can measure your profits and other key performance indicators, but where are the figures about values, beliefs, assumptions, interactions and behavior? Behavior that creates organizational performance. Here’s the reason why many executives let it be. They delegate culture to the HR manager. “It’s not tangible, it’s vague, it’s people-soft.” But it’s so distinctive in getting you results that you can’t afford to let it be.

One popular approach to organizational culture change comes from Edgar Schein. He discerns 3 levels: the articfacts that are visible at the surface, the espoused values that are consciously pursued (goals, strategies) and the basic assumptions that are unconscious taken-for-granted beliefs and feelings. That’s a beautiful model, but I have to deal with everyday business life. How does this relate to my call center, the marketing department, my account managers, the R&D techies and the shop floor? So let’s make it as simple and tangible as possible.

This is where Univerity of Michigan professors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn come in. They developed a quick but effective tool to assess organizational culture and to work with it, very practically. Their instrument is validated and based on extensive research concerning the effectiveness or organizations. When they had developed it and tested it thoroughly, it came down to 6 aspects that define culture and 2 dimensions that were found to impact organizational success. That was so little, that one of their prestigious first clients asked if they could add some more questions to the instrument to make it look more serious. This anecdote shows that we often think that theories and tools need to be complicated to be true and taken seriously. They aren’t. Simple is beautiful.

Let’s take a glimpse at the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) that Cameron & Quinn designed. It was discovered by statistical analysis that only 2 dimensions were really decisive for organizational effectiveness and performance. Those are 2 choices that organizations have:

  1. To be internally focused and integrated or externally focused and differentiated.
  2. To aim for stability and control or for flexibility and discretion.

Cameron & Quinn discerned 4 culturetypes that differed on these dimensions.

  1. Clan culture: internally focused and flexible: working like a clan, very friendly and people-oriented. Keyword: cooperate.
  2. Hierarchy culture: internally focused but aiming for stability: working according to clear procedures and structures, valuing reliability and predictability. Keyword: control.
  3. Market culture: external focus and stability: focused on competing and competition, getting things done, working hard, results-oriented. Keyword: compete.
  4. Adhocracy culture: external focus and flexible: working to create new things, innovate, experiment and do things your own way like entrepreneurs. Keyword: create.

Reading this, you might already get an idea of your dominant organizational culture right now. Most organizational cultures are a mixture of these 4 “arche types”. There are no “good” or “bad” cultures. There are only good or bad fits. If your call center embraces hierarchy culture, your customers will be annoyed with internal procedures while they just want their problem solved quickly. Adhocracy culture may be the perfect fit for an internet start-up but a problem if it’s widespread and very dominant in an insurance company. If you want to know your current organizational culture, you simply take the assessment that judges the 6 diacritical aspects of culture that we mentioned earlier:

  1. dominant characteristics
  2. organizational leadership
  3. management of employees
  4. organization glue
  5. strategic emphases
  6. criteria of success

Assessing these again for the desired situation, you get a cultural profile that you would like to achieve in the future. The gap between current and preferred culture indicates the need that people feel for organizational culture change. Or for any change at all. Check out your change program, and see how it fits into current culture. You might get an idea why 70% of change programs fail. Working with the OCAI, you get a good idea of organizational culture change.

Using the assessment online will only take 15 minutes and you can invite as many employees as you like. That’s different than doing in-depth interviews through an organization that will take you months to compare and analyze. Moreover, once you’ve got the graphic and quantitative results of all executives and employees in a profile, you can follow the OCAI change method to involve everyone. Here’s the qualitative part, filling in the figures in a much more structured way than interviews.

Organizations are able to design a change program that people are willing to implement since they have contributed to it and now “own” it. In the process, hidden objections and resistance is turned around, plans will be made better and realistic and the concept of organizational culture is chunked down to even more than Schein’s levels. We will work with organizational identity, beliefs and capacities, and come down very practically to daily behavior and measurable results. This is a condition for successful change that will stick. And that will appeal to the top executive team, but also make sense to marketing, R&D, HR, sales, call center, shop floor and so on. It sounds extensive, but you really win a lot of time, effort and money if you take this seriously. Change is the only constant. Heraclitus was right. So let’s make the very best of it!

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