By Dr. Seleem R. Choudhury
An organization’s “culture” is simply defined as the expected way to behave within an organization. Stated more simply, organizational culture is “the way things are done around here” (Deal & Kennedy, 2000). Culture is not written rules or guidelines, but rather the way we act and how we get work done. The values of a particular organizational culture are engrained into the life of the organization. When culture is found to be ineffective or, worse, toxic, leaders discover that it is extremely difficult to change.
Many organizations start in the wrong place by making sweeping changes to the staff or executive team or attempting to overhaul every aspect of the current culture. Changing culture is more than a matter of changing the players, and seeking to change everything about an organization’s culture will inadvertently remove elements of the organization that are working well. Rather than taking a demolition approach, leaders would increase the possibility of successfully changing their organization’s culture by thinking of culture change as a renovation.
The importance of culture
A 2017 Harvard Business Review article compares organizational culture to the wind: “[Culture] is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt” (Walker & Soule, 2017). Harnessing the power of organizational culture is one of the keys to getting good work done. A recent conversation with friend, colleague, and mentor Brian Dolan, OBE, RMN, RGN, highlighted that it is a leader’s responsibility to understand this power, and determine if the current organizational culture is effective or ineffective in helping the organization fulfill its mission. For better and worse, culture and leadership are intricately interconnected (Groysberg, Lee, Price, & Cheng, 2018). Leaders, whether they do so intentionally or passively, are shaping the culture of their organizations. They should be capable of actively shaping culture to the benefit of everyone on the team and the realization of the organization’s goals (Craig, 2018).
Interestingly, though there is a plethora of articles, discussions, and research that focuses on cultural change, much controversy exists on whether it is possible to make these changes successfully. Undoubtedly, changing the culture of an organization is a steep challenge. It requires much more than recognizing a problem and leaders who are committed to making a change. It takes significant effort and investment at every level of the organization.
Still, despite the challenges to making a successful culture change, the outcomes regarding building the right culture are indisputable. Organizations that can turn the tide and maintain a “drive towards lasting improvement in performance and organizational health,” regularly outperform competitors (McKinsey, 2021).
“Culture renovation,” not “culture change”
Terms like “culture change” or “organizational transformation” tend to carry a negative connotation. These phrases often imply that nothing good exists in the organization, and so everything must change, bringing to mind the idiomatic expression, “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” The danger of culture transformation efforts is making a change that impacts many elements of the organization, including things that are working for the organization or are core to its identity. A goal of leaders in culture change processes is to ensure that the organization does not lose something important while trying to get rid of unwanted elements of its culture. Changes to a company’s culture, then, should be carefully and thoughtfully engaged, not left to chance (Patel, 2017).
Kevin Oakes, CEO and Co-founder of i4CP and author of Culture Renovation, proposes a different strategy when exploring the need to transform your culture. In an interview with HR Executive, Oakes describes cultural change as restoring an old 100-year-old house by considering what exists, then deciding what to keep and what to change (Ramirez, 2021).
“With a historic house, there are elements that are timeless that you want to hang on to. You keep those elements, while upgrading for the future with new technology and new ways of doing things that increase the value of your house long-term. The same concept applies to companies. Successful companies don’t transform their organization. They renovate their culture, meaning they keep the values and traits that have made them successful, build upon them and recognize what they need to create to increase the value of the organization long-term” (Ramirez, 2021).
This metaphor resonates strongly with me. When I was a child, my parents bought a Victorian house in London. The house was huge and beautiful. My parents wanted to preserve and honor the Victorian elements of the home, but also wanted to modernize elements within. This was not an easy feat, and the work required to renovate the house felt nearly endless. Yet, it never occurred to my parents to rip down the house and build it anew; rather, they wanted to keep what was good and focus their efforts on areas that needed changing or upgrading.
Organizational culture is quite similar. It is not a one-and-done process. Leaders must also know this and be willing to invest the time, money, and work necessary for the renovation, recognizing that it is a continuous improvement process.
Perhaps that is why, according to a 2019 study from i4CP, only 15% of the companies studied said their culture change efforts had been successful (Goodridge, 2019). Oakes believes that those organizations that are successful know that no one can truly change their culture; rather, they “intentionally [renovate] their culture” (Fagan, & Prokopeak, 2021). Just like my parents’ Victorian House, organizations should keep what they want, understand what they need, and add what is required.
In his book Culture Renovation, Oakes guides organizations through this process, laying out an evidence-based, three-step process to effectively renovate a culture plan. However, he cautions organizations not to make any changes until they perform a full assessment to evaluate the “readiness and maturity level on the organization’s culture change journey” (Oakes, 2021).
It was Peter Drucker who coined the phrase, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While it is certainly true that a thriving culture is essential for organizational success, these sorts of maxims on culture change often drive leaders to feel that a wholesale, top-to-bottom culture overhaul is necessary. In my experience, this is rarely the case.
Before leaders decide if the culture needs to be changed, begin first with an assessment (Dooley, 2021). Just as in the old house analogy, it is likely that much of the structure is contributing to the organization’s success and should be kept, renewed, or strengthened. Only elements that pose a danger to the structure should be replaced for the health of the organization.
About Seleem R. Choudhury, DNP
Seleem Choudhury is an international clinician and operational executive with over 15 years of experience leading academic hospitals and health systems in community settings. He writes about clinical excellence and entrepreneurism in healthcare at seleemchoudhury.com.
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