Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

The Culture Equation

IBM attained its greatest success – and displayed its greatest ability to adapt to a changing world – during the same era that it displayed its strongest cult-like culture
-Jim Collins, Built to Last
Organizational culture is an incredibly fascinating subject to me. It's something I've long been interested in and one of the primary reasons I decided to pursue my MS in Organizational Performance. Before we go any further with the subject though, I think we need to all agree on something here: every group or organization has a culture. Culture is like your personal health: it can be a lot of things but everyone has it. You can't not have health. It can be bad or good, young or old, but it has to be something. Culture is the same way, it can be a lot of things but it's always there affecting what happens within the team, group, or organization. That's why this matters. You have culture, so you might as well be sure it's working for you. With that in mind, you could consider the following exercise as a trip to your cultural general practitioner.  This is your check up to see what's going on and what to do next.

First, we need a working definition of culture. The quick version I always use is, "Culture is the way we do things around here". Lets be more specific and break that down a bit though. We need something we can work with in a more scientific way. Let's try an equation so we can define the working variables:
There are two specific things that seem to guide culture in my mind: vision and norms. Specifically, vision would be the actual, shared, working vision of the organization. Norms would be the accepted and encouraged values and habits of the group. There is the group psychology factor we have to account for here, which is why this equation is raised to the "i" power. This stands for influencers. Vision and norms are important, but they matter to the extent that influencers on the group support and affirm them. Influencers are both people and process.

So let's first talk about defining culture. To define culture we simply need to define the variables of the equation. We must define the shared and working vision of the organization. Where do people think this whole thing is going? What are we working towards? Keep in mind that senior leadership may have a vision they want, but that doesn't mean that's the actual, working, vision of the group. Some organizations may even find there are conflicting, or at least contrasting, visions operating. It's important to document all of this and define it carefully. Sometimes it helps to visually map these out.

Secondly, we have to define the "norms" variable to the best of our ability. What does this group accept and/or encourage as normal? What types of habits and behaviors are encouraged? We must consider the influence of both people and systems. The easier way to ask this questions is, "how do we do things around here". Again, it's important to define how things actually happen and not how we might want things to happen. That part comes later when we attempt to adjust culture.

Third, and most importantly, we need to define the variable of influencers. Influencers play a significant role here. Most people follow the lead of the group which is defined by the influencers within it. Again, this could be both people or process. When it comes to people don't simply look to leaders. Influencers don't have to be in a position of official leadership to have significant sway over the direction and accepted behaviors. In addition to people, consider system or process influencers. This can an be difficult to define at times. A brief example might be a closed door policy driving a culture that doesn't value sharing information.

Finally, I think it's important to wrap this up in a package of some kind. To understand the information we need to process the information. It's important to boil down the current reality in a few sentences or maybe even a picture. The key is to keep it brief and to the point. We need to look at the information and ask, "what is going on here" or "what is our active culture".

So now that we know what culture is, it stands to follow we may want to change it. We can go back to our equation and realize that a delta in any variable will adjust our culture. A strategic delta in multiple variables will more effectively change our culture. For example, if we can effectively cast a new vision that truly becomes the shared, working, vision of the group we can adjust culture. Or maybe we can work to change the norms of the group, which again will effectively change culture. Remember this is exponentially raised to extent of our influencers. Creating and removing influencers is difficult, but it's also where we start to engage exponential type progress in culture work.

So this is culture and how to change it from my perspective. We need to first define the variables of vision, norms, and influencers. Than we can go about changing vision or norms, keeping in mind we must secure the support of influencers. I've created a worksheet for this process if you'd like to use it. I'd love to hear your feedback on this subject!


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