Somebody asked me a question this week. Not unusual of course, except it was a question which I used to get asked with tedious repetitiveness and it wasn’t until she said it, I realized nobody had asked me this question for at least 2 years.

            “Do you believe that it’s possible to change (organisational) culture?”

Now a simple reason for no longer asking a question would be that we already have the answer or that the answer was obvious – that being said, I will concede the obviousness of the answer does not always prevent the question, for example “do you want fries with that?”

This question however does not have an obvious answer. Never has done, never will do. For that reason, I started to consider that perhaps people (other than my culturally curious acquaintance, of course) have become bored of this question. Maybe it’s just not a hot enough topic in the face of all the other challenges organisations are grappling with at the moment. If that’s the case, then now more than ever, are we about to face a world of pain when it comes to culture.

Let me first put you out of your misery – I know you were waiting anxiously for my answer to the question – yes, absolutely, undoubtedly, without question, I believe it is possible to change organisational culture. How can I be so sure? Because cultures change all the time, often unintentionally and the question maybe shouldn’t be is it possible to change it rather perhaps is it possible to control it or at least guide the change in direction we see as being most beneficial?

One of the reasons this particular conundrum has persisted over time is the fact that we don’t seem to be able to agree on a single model or even description of what organisational culture is and what it’s made of. The amount of different elements and levers of culture that could be taken into consideration are so diverse and numerous, that efforts to plan cultural change become something of an exercise akin to trying to contain an octopus in a string bag without leaving any tentacles hanging out.

I don’t want to mix two concepts together here, so I will leave the change management piece aside for now, other than to say of course, there should be a planned and structured approach to the change path. What I’m talking about today is the first step. Mapping and understanding your current culture so that you can properly understand what needs to change and – I cannot stress the importance of this enough – what needs to stay the same.

As previously mentioned, there is no singular, correct model of culture but the closest I have been able to come to describing eloquently is “how it feels to be on the receiving end of the organisation”. By that I mean what does it feel like when the organisation speaks to you, or interacts with you as an employee across all aspects of the employee experience. Perhaps what I’m saying (definitely what I’m saying but without trying to sound too preachy), is that organisations have a personality. In which case we can consider that organisational personality can formed by some of the same aspects as individual personality. Don’t believe me? Then let me take you on a quick jaunt away from mere blog conjecture and into the realm of actual theory.

My favourite model, the one I consider describes most completely the aspects and levers of organisational culture is Johnson and Scholes Cultural Web. If you are having a serious look at culture and cultural mapping I encourage you to consider each of the aspects they talk about:

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What they are saying here is that the cultural paradigm, how it feels to be on the receiving end, of an organisation is dependent on:

  • Stories – How an organisation understands and explains its self. This could be the set of espoused values an organisation claims to work to or an important history or back ground that has shaped the activities of the organisation
  • Symbols – The actual physical artefacts that officially (and unofficially) represent the organisation; logos, offices, trophies, awards to name but a few. Seems shallow? Think about the assumptions you make of an organisation by looking at these things. Symbols run deep.
  • Power Structures – the people and the systems that have the power to ‘get things done’. Where does the ambition drive come from? Is the CEO or owner the owner of absolute top down power? Do HR have an influential seat at the table. Systems can also hold power, approval hierarchies for example or performance management processes. Which systems trump others?
  • Organisational Structures – Formal structures and hierarchy. How many layers are there in the structure, how much distance between individuals and leadership levels. What does this mean for how information and autonomy flow.
  • Control Systems – How does the organisation control how things are done? Is its ‘braking’ system beating its achievement drive? Is it observing and controlling its systems relentlessly or does it have a more lassiez faire attitude to letting things develop organically? How does it balance intuition and cognition? Also don’t forget reward and punishment.
  • Rituals and routines – The accepted norms and practises. These could be all manner of things; the organisations attitude to meetings, email conventions, regular events, what time we go for lunch, in summary the things we do and say just because that’s how it’s done around here and defines how we are expected to behave in a given situation.

If you take all these things into consideration, you would be very close to having a comprehensive description of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of your organisation. Following on from that, it’s an easily structured exercise to create a new web of what we might want it to feel like in the future, post cultural shift. I wouldn’t dare to try and tell you, an intellectual, that this is the perfect model but it’s a very good start to bagging up that octopus.

As the way we are working, both physically and tactically, is changing so rapidly just now, it is inevitable that culture is going to shift as some of these levers are moving, even without anyone at the controls. This is why I said earlier that we are facing a world of pain if we don’t start thinking seriously again about whether we can at least steer our cultural change. And, perhaps most importantly, protect and preserve the things we love about where we work when everything seems to be changing.

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