Culture and Strategy: Musts on the Menu for Change

Whether culture eats strategy for lunch is true or not, they both better be on the menu for a successful change initiative.  Perhaps more so where there’s little or no ability to coerce change.  

I can trace my awareness of the difference between compliance and commitment to Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. Reading that book ended any chance I might have bought into a command-and-control world view. Since human nature is the slowest to change, I truly doubt Senge was describing a late 20th century development. The limits to control have always been there even in organizations and places where power and hierarchy appear on the surface to be absolute.

In a few weeks I will have an encore opportunity to coach and nudge a major change initiative forward. A year ago a national organization convened a summit to developrecommendations to harmonize practices and processes across an entire field.  We are talking about 200 autonomous nodes of interaction, each with hundreds of relationships with equally autonomous organizations. I breathed a sigh of relief last October when 400 plus leaders agreed to a shared vision and path forward.  

It easily could have gone the other way.  It still might. Voluntary change at this scale is very difficult and likely to be slower than the strongest advocates want.

In the opening statement of the summit recommendations and reinforced throughout the set of proposed changes is the recognition that none of these carefully crafted actions will occur without a culture grounded in learning, shared responsibility, collaboration and partnership.

A few task forces are now working on the critical first steps in this change initiative. The summit leaders decided to create an opportunity for a frank conversation about the culture transformation everyone recognizes will be essential.  Any changes in infrastructure and processes will simply enable and support this culture change. They will have little power to compel commitment.

Culture is determined by the norms of group behavior, what the majority of the group believes and how they interpret the world and their place in it. By default, organizations adopt culture from their past, consolidate it from the identities of its members, or absorb it from their surrounding environment.  

You can immediately see the problem with culture by default. Current and future conditions often demand different knowledge, behaviors and relationships.

The fastest way to borrow and sustain a culture is to build from the multiple identities of the individual members. Academics have a distinctive identity as do practitioners; teachers and engineers value different attributes than do artists and health professionals. Consolidating their distinctive identities and behaviors can create their organization’s dominant culture.

The dominant values and norms of a society also shape the cultures of organizations and systems of organizations. What’s the balance of profitability and altruism?  What impact do race, gender, ethnicity, even levels of education, have on who leads and has influence?

If creating a culture by default has its limitations, how do you intentionally create a culture that enables and sustains the changes you need?  Having a shared vision and sense of purpose is critical. Fortunately I can remind these leaders they enthusiastically agreed to desired outcomes. 

To be intentional about creating their culture, they need to understand and respect each other’s roles in delivering those desired outcomes. They will need to learn to trust each other to share the responsibility for achieving the vision. These changes of mind and heart will require honest communication and behaviors that exemplify collaboration and partnership.  Any attempts to exert inappropriate power based on expertise, reputation or money can and will undermine that trust.

As with all change initiatives, what will bring about this culture transformation will be a small group of deeply committed individuals that show others how much more rewarding and successful they can be working in harmony toward their goals. Others will learn from them and follow their model. And the recalcitrant few will someday discover they are no longer relevant to the future of their field.