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How do you change organizational culture? Start with a good model.

Culture gets discussed a lot where I work. Often it’s talked about as a hindrance: an invisible force that resists change. For example, people think the introduction of novel ideas like “continuous improvement” or “customer-first orientation” remains difficult because of “the culture.” Culture also comes up in the context of discussions of things that makes our organization great. From talking with our new hires, I’ve found we have an organization that’s welcoming to newcomers. I see that welcoming quality is part of “the culture”.











(Photo credit: Bryan Costin via Compfight)

Culture in an organization includes a mix of both the good and the bad. It’s a variety of norms, values and assumptions that strengthen the organization and serve the mission. And it’s the values and cherished beliefs that no longer fit in, but somehow linger. You can talk about why you have so many perfectionists at work, and accurately say, “It’s the (risk averse) culture here.” And you can talk about why people resist change, and respond, “It’s the (immune-to-change) culture here.” Culture as a term gets loosely thrown around to describe a whole lot of things.

When I begin work with people on issues of culture and culture change, my first goal is to create clarity. And clarity comes more readily when we use common terms, for starters. But we need a bit more than that. We need both a common mental model and a shared vocabulary for mapping the culture. As Max De Pree wrote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” Your model creates a frame for the cultural reality.

Measurement: finding order in the amorphous

An effective model helps you measure culture. I believe an effective tool for assessing culture should satisfy a few criteria:

1. Revealing. The model should open people up to a new view into the organization. It should facilitate insight. It should open people to a new depth of understanding to go beyond superficial views of the culture. Example: ping pong tables in the office represent a value of fun and informality, but strong cultural models should take you beyond superficial symbols like ping pong tables, and deeper into the core and the life of the organization.

2. Pragmatic. The model should provide practical constraints and a useful, common vocabulary for your group. It applies theory to practice with minimal overhead and extraneous detail. A good model helps groups analyze and diagnose culture efficiently. It should be easy to communicate to newcomers who have never formally diagnosed culture.

3. Specific. Discussions surrounding culture should start to get more precise when people use the model. There should be a clarifying effect in the group when you draw the model up on the whiteboard or project it on the screen. When people talk about aspects of your culture, your model should have enough precision to readily expose where those artifacts of your culture fall into the framework.

4. Strategic. You should be able to answer two simple, strategic questions more easily. They are: “Where are we now?” and “Where do we need to be?”

So my first piece of advice to anyone who wants to have constructive discussions around culture change is to introduce an effective model to your organization.

The model I use is Cameron and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework. Here’s a thorough introduction to this model, co-authored by Cameron and Quinn. This model has been out for 30 years, and been put to use by many organizations since its inception. It allows you to map an organization’s culture based on the degree of internal focus versus external focus, and the degree of stability/control versus flexibility. The best way to begin understanding it is to see it:

 (Image credit: The Lurking Variable)

Every organization holds values that fall into each of the four quadrants. This model provides a way for people to see their primary culture, and identify the desired future culture. A Hierarchy culture is about “doing things right” and moves ahead through incremental, well-controlled means. A Clan culture is about collaboration and “doing things together”; it emphasizes long-term development. An Adhocracy culture is about “doing things first” and creating breakthrough innovations. And the Market culture is all about “doing things fast” with emphasis on competing and short-term performance. A good way to learn the model is to use it to diagnose your own organization: I recommend this online tool (based on Cameron and Quinn’s model), which you can complete in about 10-15 minutes at no cost.

Have you attempted to measure the culture where you work? What approach did you use? What was the outcome?

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