Although transforming culture includes a whole range of considerations, it is important to bear in mind that the core of the matter is the individual. To be precise about, we should say the transforming organisational culture is concerned with transforming the intent of the individual.
The Organisation & The Individual
Anything you do from a culture transformation point of view that does not transform the individual and his/her habitual ways of interacting will be cosmetic in character. It may look and sound sophisticated but will not have a meaningful impact. So, when dealing with the issue of culture transformation, it is essential to establish the line of sight between the organisation as a whole and the individual human being within the organisation. We have to establish the link between the “macro-change” we want to see and the “micro-changes” that constitute it. These micro-changes sit at the level of the intent of the individual.
The culture of the organisation is not defined by the systems and structures of the organisation. It is defined by the manner in which people conduct themselves within the organisation. This means to say that systems and structures do not produce it. Systems and structures and the product of it. For example, an organisation populated by empowering leaders will have empowering systems and structures. It is the intent of the leaders which produces the systems and structures, and not the other way around. This suggests that one needs to look at the issue of culture as a verb and not a noun. Culture is something we do. It lives and breathes in our conduct and the intentions behind our conduct. It is also something that moves and continuously evolves.
When we recognize this, we come to better understand how challenging it is to meaningfully transform it. Particularly in large organisations. To meaningfully transform it, you have to effectively transform a large number of individuals. This is a substantial challenge. But the rewards for pulling it off are potentially immense. Peter Drucker’s famous quote that ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ articulates a truism. It underlines the power of culture transformation. How often does one see beautifully thought out and articulated strategies suffer shipwreck on a spirit of disengagement and lack of commitment. This means that the best of plans and strategies can be ruined on the rocks of a toxic culture. Conversely, not only can a toxic culture shipwreck a good plan, a healthy culture can turn a bad plan into a monumental success.
Unlearning the ‘norm’ of Culture
Unfortunately, one of the biggest obstacles to transforming culture is all of the complexities people build into the notion of what it is. Many people see it as something that has many moving parts. A single definition from a consultancy specializing in it would suffice to demonstrate the case: The Business Achievers indicate that ‘Organizational Culture is the collection of values, expectations, and practices that guide and inform actions of all team members.” And clearly, this is not what it is. For the most part, these things are just words we put on a wall. The actual culture just is the manner in which people actually conduct themselves and the intentions that sit behind that conduct.
It would be helpful, therefore, to arrive at a more pointed understanding of it. One that would then enable us to readily distinguish between toxic and healthy organisational cultures. We may start however by considering a couple of the features of a healthy culture in order to demonstrate a point. Here are two features of what constitutes a healthy culture:
- An organisation with a healthy culture will have a spirit of collaboration between employees that encourages innovation.
- An organisation with a healthy culture will be customer-focused such that employees readily go the extra mile in delighting the customer.
What we should notice about both of these descriptions of a healthy culture is that they are both manifestations of a single variable. Namely the intent of the individual. In the first instance, collaboration is the intent to set my colleague up for success. This is what it means to collaborate. In the second instance, customer-focus just is the intent to be of service to the customer. Both of these then are manifestations of what we could call the intent to give in the individual concerned.
We see then that the degree to which the average person in the organisation interacts with the intent to give is the degree to which the organisation will be customer focused, innovative, and manifest a spirit of collaboration amongst its employees. And this will be the case for variables that could conceivably be considered from a culture point of view because all it is concerned with the conduct or actions of individuals and all actions have an intention that sits behind them.
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