One of my favourite quotes comes from management guru Peter Drucker, who once reportedly said: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’, suggesting that best laid plans have no hope of success in situations where the underlying organisational culture is not aligned to the strategy.
‘Culture’ is extremely powerful, yet it is completely intangible and almost impossible to define. Academics have been trying to make sense of it for decades.
Most recently I asked a group of librarians to define what ‘organisational culture’ is in a single sentence, and I received some great suggestions (so good, in fact, that I wonder whether they might have been Googling when I wasn’t looking):
“Tangible and intangible elements that define a working environment and its capacity to respond and adapt to variables”
“Collective approach and attitude to a set of group norms and values, and these are accepted and reflected in our day to day interactions with others”
“A framework of behaviour and environment based on shared values and beliefs which recognise different personalities and situations”
Perhaps the best known academic ‘model’ and definition of organisational culture comes from Edgar Schein.
Schein breaks down culture into three levels to demonstrate its complexity and its ingrained nature:
- Observable artefacts. These are physical things that you can see: logos, signs, the outward appearance of the workplace, organisational charts and structure, demeanour of staff, policies, procedures, processes. These ‘artefacts’ are skin-deep. Whilst they are indicative of an organisation’s underlying culture, they don’t really get to the heart of what culture is.
- Values. These are the things that one might find in the organisation’s strategic and corporate documents. The mission, the values, the principles, the strategies. The formal stuff that is taught during induction training.
- Basic Underlying Assumptions. This is the informal, unwritten stuff – and the most powerful. The ‘it’s how we do things around here’. You won’t read this is in any staff manual. It’s the gossip, the personalities, the unwritten rules, the historical vestiges, the unspoken expectations, the stuff that goes unsaid. These are the assumptions that need to be addressed if true cultural change is to be effected – yet change efforts rarely delve this deeply, which is why so many of them fail.
Schein goes on to define culture as follows:
- Culture is a pattern of basic assumptions.
- Culture is invented, discovered, or developed by a given group.
- Culture is developed by a group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.
- The culture has worked well enough to be considered valid.
- The culture is taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.
The last element of that definition is perhaps the biggest hurdle to cultural change – new members are indoctrinated by existing members, which serves to perpetuate the status quo, which is not necessarily the best situation in the modern change-oriented landscape.
You might have the best strategy in the world, but if the culture isn’t right, then that strategy is destined to fail.