Sustaining The Organizational Culture

The literature on the issue of sustaining the organizational culture too is richly bestowed with a variety of research findings, experience tales as well as in-depth theoretical discourses. Many authors have culled down their vast experiences to present the different to-do lists that would help in those who are amid the organizational culture sustenance stage. Presented here is a representative reference list of some of such representative articles:

Here are some of the videos:

Sustaining success depends on an organization’s ability to adapt to a changing environment – whether it’s an external change, such as a transformative technology or a changing economy, or an internal one, such as a restructuring or key process overhaul. Many aa times, this requires going beyond just the written rules to reaching for the highest aspirational behaviour. It means living the principles underpinning the values, even when there is no rule or where the written rule is unclear. In this abstract form, many employees, even at the senior management levels, necessarily understand why the company has to operate in a different way in the future. Therefore, merely challenging their status quo mind set alone will not suffice. These people need to be instilled with simple, conceivable cultural norms and behaviors that translate the organization’s unique personality and soul into customer-focused actions and bottom-line results. Maintaining momentum among employees requires consistent, sustained communication of the end goal and the behaviours necessary to get there.

It shall be well remembered that organizational culture is one of the several means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is your business’s strategic agenda. Thus, sustaining the winning culture should be primarily pursued with the ultimate vision of sustaining the competitive edge, within the constantly varying context of the organization. It’s about raising sights beyond the strategic choices and daily initiatives to change how the organization works.

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All month-wise published episodes of the series, published in 2020, The Organizational Culture, are collated in one file and can be read / downloaded by clicking on the hyperlink.

Improving the Organizational Culture

Changing an organization’s culture is no small feat. It takes time and persistence. But a lean organization is one that is fundamentally human-centered, one that enables people to thrive and grow. If we focus more on leadership mindset and behavior, and less on the mechanical aspects of operational excellence, it should be easier to create the culture we want.[1]

The literature on organizational culture improvement is agog with principles of improvement in culture as well as  keys to creating a high performance culture. We will leave detailed browsing of these to more interested quality professionals. I have picked up one topic for a closer view here.

What follows in extracted script of the video The Westrum Model for Improving Organizational Culture

In 1988, Ron Westrum developed a typology of organizational cultures.

  • Pathological or power-oriented organizations are characterized by large amounts of fear and threat. People often hoard information or withhold it for political reasons or distort it to make themselves look better.
  • Bureaucratic, rule-oriented organizations protect departments. Those in the department want to maintain their turf, insist on their own rules, and generally do things by the book, their book.
  • Generative or performance-oriented organizations focus on the mission. How do we accomplish our goal? Everything is subordinated to good performance, to doing what we’re supposed to do.

Westrum’s further insight was that the organizational culture predicts the way information flows through an organization. Westrum provides three characteristics of good information.

  • First, it provides answers to the questions that the receiver needs answered.
  • Second, it is timely.
  • Lastly, it is presented in such a way that it can be effectively used by the receiver.

Good information flow is critical to the safe and effective operation of high-tempo and high-consequence environments, including technology organizations.

Additional insight from Westrum was that this definition of organizational culture predicts performance outcomes.

To go into more detail regarding the typology, this table on screen helps with describing the behavior seen in three types of cultures outlined: pathological, bureaucratic, and generative.

This shows the high-performing organizations are actually continuously learning and improving and trying to get better.

Culture enables information processing through three mechanisms.

  • First, in organizations with a generative culture, people collaborate more effectively and there is a higher level of trust both across the organization and up and down the hierarchy.
  • Second, generative culture emphasizes the mission, an emphasis that allows people involved to put aside their personal issues and also the departmental issues that are so evident in bureaucratic organizations. The mission is primary.
  • Third, generativity encourages a level playing field, in which hierarchy plays less of a role.

A good culture is reflected in the high level of collaboration and trust inside the organization. In addition, a better organizational culture can indicate higher-quality decision making. In a team with a generative culture, not only is the better information available for making decisions, but those decisions are more easily reversed if they turn out to be wrong, because the team is more likely to be open and transparent. Problems are also more rapidly discovered and addressed.

Ultimately, culture predicts software delivery performance, organizational performance, and leads to higher levels of job satisfaction.[2]

Value creation in the past was a function of economies of industrial scale: mass production and the high efficiency of repeatable tasks. The value of products and services today is based more and more on creativity – the innovative ways that they take advantage of new materials, technologies, and processes.

The means and speed of the value creation will bring massive disruption. Therefore, the only question that any organizational culture improvement initiative should address is whether your company is going to cause it or fall victim to it.[3]

[1] Why You’re Struggling to Improve Company Culture? = Dan Markovitz

[2] The Westrum Model for Improving Organizational Culture

[3] Value creation in the future

Organizational Culture Transformation

Culture change cannot be achieved through top-down mandate. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of “how things are done around here.”

The most significant change often comes through social movements,

We often think of movements as starting with a call to action. But movement research suggests that they actually start with emotion — a diffuse dissatisfaction with the status quo and a broad sense that the current institutions and power structures of the society will not address the problem.

The social movements typically start small. They begin with a group of passionate enthusiasts who deliver a few modest wins. While these wins are small, they are powerful in demonstrating efficacy to nonparticipants, and they help the movement gain steam. The movement really gathers force and scale once this group successfully co-opts existing networks and influencers.

Practices for Leading a Cultural Movement

Leaders should not be too quick or simplistic in their translation of social movement dynamics into change management plans. That said, leaders can learn a lot from the practices of skillful movement makers.

Frame the issue. Successful leaders of movements are often the masters of framing situations in terms that stir emotion and incite action.Framing can also apply social pressure to conform.  In terms of organizational culture change, a leader can do this by framing change within the organization’s purpose — the “why we exist” question.

Demonstrate quick wins. Movement makers are very good at recognizing the power of celebrating small wins. When it comes to organizational culture change, leaders too often fall into the trap of declaring the culture shifts they hope to see. Instead, they need to spotlight examples of actions they hope to see more of within the culture. Sometimes, these examples already exist within the culture, but at a limited scale. Other times, they need to be created.

Harness networks. Effective movement makers are extremely good at building coalitions, bridging disparate groups to form a larger and more diverse network that shares a common purpose. And effective movement makers know how to activate existing networks for their purposes.

Create safe havens. Movement makers are experts at creating or identifying spaces within which movement members can craft strategy and discuss tactics. These are spaces where the rules of engagement and behaviors of activists are different from those of the dominant culture. They’re microcosms of what the movement hopes will become the future.

Embrace symbols. Movement makers are experts at constructing and deploying symbols and costumes that simultaneously create a feeling of solidarity and demarcate who they are and what they stand for to the outside world. Symbols and costumes of solidarity help define the boundary between “us” and “them” for movements.

The Challenge to Leadership

When it comes to culture change, authority of the position to order a mandate should be used sparingly. It is easy to overuse one’s authority in the hopes of accelerating transformation.

It is also easy for an enterprise leader to shy away from organizational friction. Harmony is generally a preferred state, after all. And the success of an organizational transition is often judged by its seamlessness.

In a movements-based approach to change, a moderate amount of friction is positive. A complete absence of friction probably means that little is actually changing. Look for the places where the movement faces resistance and experiences friction. They often indicate where the dominant organizational design and culture may need to evolve.

And remember that culture change only happens when people take action. So start there. While articulating a mission and changing company structures are important, it is often a more successful approach to tackle those sorts of issues after you’ve been able to show people the change you want to see.[1]

The following schematic model provides essentials of a culture transformation design model.

According to the Barrett Values Model, cultural transformation is evolutionary in nature. The whole journey of change covers both internal and external environments and the gradual sense of identity regarding who we are. “Vibrant cultures have high levels of performance because they create internal cohesion, attract talented people, and inspire employees to go the extra mile.”[2]

Source: The Barrett Model – Barrett Values CentreTanya Lapinski

The literature available on the subject is an ocean. Here is what is good enough to understand the basics.

Further reading:

[1] Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate by Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule

[2] Importance of a culture transformation

Measuring Organizational Culture

Understanding the organizational culture provides insights into the inter-relationships, and behaviours, of people within the organization, which in turn explains why an organization acts in manner that it does.  Measurement of the organizational culture helps in assessing the strength and weaknesses of values and beliefs that shape these inter-relationships and behaviours.

Measurement of organizational culture is also well studied and documented subject. We have taken up here only a tip of these in-depth studies, to brief us about a few techniques and their strengths and limitations.

One typology that has received a lot of research attention is the Organizational Culture Profile (OCP) where culture is represented by seven distinct values (Chatman & Jehn, 1991; O’Reilly, et. al., 1991).[1]

Dimensions of Organizational Culture Profile (OCP)

                             Dimensions of Organizational Culture Profile (OCP)
Adapted from information in O’Reilly, C. A., III, Chatman, J. A., & Caldwell, D. F. (1991). People and organizational culture: A profile comparison approach to assessing person-organization fit. Academy of Management Journal, 34, 487–516.

There is one prerequisite in all organizational culture cases that makes it strong – corporate culture analysis.

To do it, there are several methodologies that can help you take a look at your corporate culture and values.

BNS (Business Needs Scorecard) to Measure Positive and Potentially Limiting Values, is one of the most precise methods to measure organizational values.

BNS as a diagnostic tool in cultural value assessment that uses 6 sections to categorize positive and potentially limiting values:

  • Finance – values that impact the growth of the company in terms of profits and financial performance.
  • Fitness – values that describe productivity and the general performance of your employees.
  • External relationships – values that affect your company’s relationship with outside players, including partners and customers.
  • Evolution – values that impact creativity and innovation of your company as well as its growth in comparison to your competitors.
  • Culture – values that influence communication and trust between the employees and corporate leaders.
  • Contribution to society – the alignment of your corporate values with the values of society.

This method allows you to perform a comprehensive analysis of your corporate values, especially from the perspective of leadership and what it takes for you to observe these values as a leader.

OCAI (Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument) Method to Measure Organizational Culture helps in measuring the active and passive values. It uses the so-called Competing Values Framework.

This method uses a diagram, which helps to identify the direction that the organizational values work towards:

Image credit: OCAI-Online

The result gives an answer about which corporate culture dominates in the company, indicating the changes that need to be made to create the organizational culture the leadership aspires to build.

Employee Surveys for Precise Engagement Rates is one of the most informative and precise ways to measure organizational culture. Besides, you actively engage your employees in creating your organizational culture.[2]

Since May 2016, Dr Tom Reader and Dr Alex Gillespie have led an academic research project to develop a new approach to measuring corporate culture. Funded by the AKO Foundation (a UK charity), this research has produced the Unobtrusive Corporate Culture Analysis Tool (UCCAT).

UCCAT is a theoretically based and scientifically tested methodology for analysing and benchmarking corporate culture. Uniquely, rather than gathering employee interviews and questionnaires to assess culture, UCCAT analyses publicly available data (e.g. annual reports, financial records, press releases and databases) indicative of a company’s cultural ‘footprint’. These data points are termed “unobtrusive indicators of organisational culture” (UICs). Each UIC represents an observable and measurable aspect of organisational activity indicative of culture (e.g. research spending, customer engagement), and can be understood as a ‘dipstick’ into a company’s culture. When aggregated together in terms of cultural dimensions, UICs allow corporate culture to be assessed from the ‘outside’.

The final UCCAT tool consists of 60 unobtrusive indicators of culture (UICs) which are grouped into 6 dimensions of corporate culture (with 10 UICs used to measure each dimension).  The following Table presents the definition for each dimension, and a single UIC indicative of it.

As can be seen in this table, each UIC is scored in terms of being positive or negative. If the data is not clearly positive or negative, then the UIC is scored as indeterminate. If data is not available, it is coded as missing. Where all 60 UICs are scored for a company, this leads to two key scores.

First, for a given company, each corporate culture dimension is scored in terms of positive UICs minus negative UICs (so 6 positive indicators minus 4 negative indicators would derive a score of 2). This provides an insight into those aspects of corporate culture for which an organisation is strong or weak.

Second, for a given company, an overall corporate culture score is derived through calculating the total number of positive UICs minus negative UICs (so 40 positive indicators minus 20 negative indicators would derive a score of 20). This provides both an overall assessment of corporate culture (in terms of positivity), and is used to benchmark companies against one another.

Several case studies were conducted with the help of UCCAT. Three key observations can be made from the results of these case studies. The anonymity of the companies examined is reserved.

First, the corporate culture profiles generated through UCCAT appear to discriminate between companies. For example, the sample’s two joint overall top performers had 23 more positive than negative indicators compared to the sample average of 7.3. They were also top performers in the dimensions of Transparency, Governance and Customer Focus, for instance with online archives of accessible company documents going back 28 years.  Conversely, the company with the sample’s poorest overall performance had 28 more negative than positive indicators: with Governance, Transparency, and Planning being particularly problematic.

Second, UCCAT provides specific insights for understanding the culture of companies. For example, one of the strongest performing companies (e.g. in terms of Employee Focus and Transparency) performed poorly on the dimension of Customer Focus. Conversely, one of the weakest companies (e.g. in terms of Governance, Customer- and Employee Focus) performed well on Transparency. Thus, UCCAT is able to identify cultural dimensions that should be monitored and potentially investigated for both weak and strong performers.

Third, some comments can be made about the patterns of UICs for each company. UICs such as “adapting to a negative event” focus on signs that a company is improving its culture: for example, by admitting and demonstrating willingness to learn from negative events. Other UICs focus on rarely occurring but highly concerning indicators. For example, the UIC of “adjusting CEO bonus”, which reveals problems in governance whereby failure is rewarded. Crucially, no single UIC or culture dimension can be used to determine corporate culture. Rather, overall patterns are telling, and paint a picture of corporate values and practices.[3]

Traditional methods provide static, or at best episodic, snapshots of organizations that are constantly evolving. And they’re limited by researchers’ tendency to assume that distinctive and idiosyncratic cultures can be neatly categorized into a few common types. Several researches have used big-data processing to mine the ubiquitous “digital traces” of culture in electronic communications, such as emails, Slack messages, and Glassdoor reviews. By studying the language employees use in these communications, we can measure how culture actually influences their thoughts and behavior at work. The Big-Data Analytics have ushered in a new scientific approach to measuring culture.[4]

Measurement of organizational culture acts as guide to the roadmap for improving culture and the performance –

  1. Measurement helps in informed decision-making
  2. Helps in understanding what resources will be required and where and when to invest for better RoIs.
  3. Involvement of a wide spectrum of people in the process of management helps in their better understanding of the culture-related issues, and also helps build better engagement.
  4. Better decisions, by more engaged people and more cohesive culture leads to improved performance.[5]

[1] Measuring Organizational Culture

[2] How to Measure Your Organizational Culture and Values by Ryan Pell

[3] Developing a tool to measure corporate culture from the ‘outside’ – Brett Heasman

[4] The New Analytics of CultureMatthew Corritore, Amir Goldberg and Sameer B. Srivastava

[5] The Importance of Measuring Organizational CultureAndrew Barenz, Client Engagement Associate

Understanding the Organizational Culture

An on-going organization already has its own unique culture. Before any major change initiative that seems to call for organizational culture transformation, it is necessary that the present organizational culture is well understood. The wide-ranging literature available about organizational culture has addressed the topic of How to Understand the Organizational Culture from different perspectives and in differing contexts. A very elementary paper like ours, obviously, will have to be content with referring to a few of the representative excerpts from such literature.

The first step in understanding the organizational culture is to observe[1]:

  • Try to become an impartial observer of your culture in action. Ask yourself questions such as: How do people interact with each other? How are conflicts resolved (and are there conflicts)? How do senior leaders interact with middle managers and employees? How do middle managers interact with reporting employees?
  • Watch for emotions. Emotions are indications of values. People do not get excited or upset about things that are unimportant to them. Examine conflicts closely, for the same reason. Do people seem engaged, interactive, excited, happy, friendly, morose, or withdrawn? Do they smile and interact with you as you walk by their desks?
  • Look at the objects and artifacts that sit on desks and hang on walls. Observe common areas and furniture arrangements. Are they interactive or are they sterile? In one memorable company, to several consultants who were walking through the cubicleville, the sterileness of the environment was striking—no family photos, plants, knick-knacks, desk accessories, or toys. The company president informed the visiting consultants, privately and under strict confidentiality, that he was closing the company at the first of the month—and he didn’t want the employees to know. The consultants informed him that the employees already knew. Their empty workstations were a testimony to this knowledge.
  • When you observe and interact with employees, watch for things that are not there. If nobody mentions something that you think is important (like the customers or expected sales growth), that is interesting information. It will help you understand your organization’s culture.

It is also considered that the best way to get a grasp on organizational culture is to identify the elements that go into a successful one. The Harvard Business Review identifies six components[2]:

  • Vision: A shared vision stems from a carefully crafted mission statement that answers the following three questions: Who is being served? What needs are being satisfied? How are those needs being satisfied?
  • Values: Values exemplify the behaviors that are expected from employees.
  • Practices: Practices explain how the vision and values are put into effect. Leadership must set an example for workers to follow.
  • People: Workers need to demonstrate not just excellent capabilities and a high level of productivity, but an ability to align to the company culture and vision.
  • Narrative: Organizations must share this with employees — even those who have just started — to make sure everyone understands where the company came from and where it is headed.
  • Place: The physical workplace environment can have a strong impact on culture. Recent trends have leaned toward open and highly collaborative workspaces, but there has been some backlash against this thinking. Authors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn have identified four types of organizational cultures in their ground-breaking book, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture, Based on the Competing Values Framework.

The following four keys provide an alternative method to understand the organizational culture[3]:

Key 1: Recognize That You Do Have Company Culture

Every organization has company culture, whether intentionally cultivated or not. In short, it refers to the combination of values, goals, ethics, and expectations that govern and influence employee behaviors. If negative behaviors have been left to develop unchecked, with no guidance or direction, then yes, a company culture that supports bad habits may have taken root.

It is not enough to simply announce that vision. You must first figure out what (and how) current behaviors need to shift in order to develop a roadmap to achieve those changes. That’s why it’s so important to define your current company culture before you try to steer it in a new direction.

Key 2: Analyze Your Company’s Priorities

If you want to better understand your culture, look at your company’s priorities. These goals and initiatives reveal what your organization values and what it does not (both explicitly and implicitly). Questions to ask yourself about company priorities may include:

  • Do your employees hear more about increasing the bottom line or increasing customer satisfaction?
  • Does your company give employees the freedom to experiment and innovate when it comes to solving problems, or is following protocol more important?
  • Is taking calculated risks seen as a distraction or opportunity?
  • How much (or how little) does your company invest in ongoing training efforts, both in terms of money and time?
  • When your company considers adopting certain efforts or changes, are the thoughts and feelings of both leadership and employees considered?

Exploring questions like this can give you clues as to what kind of culture your company has cultivated. Is it one with a workforce that’s empowered, engaged, and encouraged to innovate and improve? Or a culture where the bottom line is often prioritized? If your company’s priorities give you pause, it may be time to explore a culture transformation.

Key 3: Inquire About Company Culture

Your company culture is made up of behaviors, those that are encouraged, permitted, and unhindered. To understand what kind makes up your organization, it’s best to go directly to the source: your employees.

Consider ways to get feedback on which behaviors currently serves the company well and which need to be discouraged or changed to elevate your organization. Gather feedback from all levels of employees, from executives to front-line managers. Surveys, company-wide assessments, and focus groups can all help create a clearer picture of the behaviors that define your current company culture. Again, the key is to engage every employee as you ask for feedback because the sum total of all employee contributions and behaviors are what make up your culture.

Key 4: Look to Your Leaders

While every employee contributes to company culture, leaders have more impact and influence. Examine the messages your leadership team puts forth, and whether action follows those words. Leadership may espouse values and a mission that excites employees, but if leadership itself doesn’t “walk the walk,” their behavior can contribute to a culture of distrust and disengagement. Culture starts from the top down, and your leadership sets the tone for what is permissible and encouraged in your company and what’s not.

On the highest level, artifacts of culture are what we can directly see and feel when entering an organization such as office space, symbols, dress codes, etc. In the middle, are espoused values of culture, formally documented within organizational vision, values and mission and informally expressed in what people say why they do (informed by interviews). The most fundamental aspect of culture is the collective, taken-for-granted, underlying assumptions, norms, beliefs and feelings that drive behaviors (informed by deep questioning and participant-observation). Understanding the underlying assumptions of the people in an organization is essential to come out with insights into organizational culture and transformation. This is often done by examining the connections between the perceptions of different aspects of culture — see SPEC’L framework. For example, an organization may claim to value ‘innovation’ but does not practice ‘openness’ (a value that supports innovation) because of underlying assumptions behind the proper distribution of power and information. As anthropologist Margaret Mead states,

“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”

Explaining these gaps and contradictions can reveal insights into how specific organizational culture (or sub-cultures) works. It is also worth noting that larger organizations, especially ones with units operating in silos are bound to contain several sub-groups and sub-cultures.[4]

It must be remembered that even as these approaches are valid and useful, but in many cases they are ignoring or not paying attention to what’s below the organizations surface. They have a tendency to focus on “The way we say we get things done” and don’t focus on “The way we really get things done”.[5]

Ignoring what’s below the surface will ultimately undermine organizational change.

The value of an organization will be measured by its capability to change

When creating a list of questions to assess the current culture, take into consideration aspects above AND below the surface:

[1] How to Understand Your Current Company Culture  – by Susan M. Heathfield

[2] Organizational Culture: Understanding What It Is and How to Improve It

[3] 4 Essential Keys to Understanding Your Company’s Culture By Dave Root

[4] Looking at Humor in Organizational Culture – Shaun Lim

[5] What have the invisible man and the organizational culture in common

Building The Organizational Culture

An organization’s culture is shaped as the organization faces external and internal challenges and learns how to deal with them. When the organization’s way of doing business provides a successful adaptation to environmental challenges and ensures success, those values are retained. These values and ways of doing business are taught to new members as the way to do business (Schein, 1992).

The factors that are most important in the creation of an organization’s culture include Leadership (founders’) values, preferences, and industry demands.[1]

Most of the organizations that have been able to build strong structures, would testify to these truths:

  1. Creating culture requires an intentional plan
  2. People do what they see
  3. Systems are critical – Systems create habits and habits create behaviors and behaviors create culture. [2]

A winning culture has two defining characteristics:

  • A unique personality and soul based on shared values and heritage.
  • Cultural norms and behaviors that translate the organization’s unique personality and soul into customer-focused actions and bottom-line results.[3]

When you are defining the culture for your new organization, or the team, you set a culture that defines the performance and happiness of you and your colleagues…. This means that as a leader your company culture is you; the good and bad of how you behave and handle situations will be how your team handles the situation…. Next time you look at your team and see something in your culture you don’t like, the first thing you should do is look at yourself.

  • Search for your blind spots.
  • Lead by example
  • Show humility and accountability
  • Set, maintain, and improve the standards

Think about the changes you want to see and then take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself how you can be part of the solution through your actions.[4]

One should be able to lay hands on a wide variety of literature relating ‘How to build a (winning) culture?’. It would be advisable to browse through the ones that seem more relevant to your context and needs. Here is one such model: Building Company Culture The Right Way –  Kate Heinz, Use this exposure to provide you a broad theoretical framework. In the end, you will work your won, your very own, method.

Suggested additional readings- Illustrative:

[1] How Are Cultures Created?

[2] How can you create the culture you want?

[3] Creating and Sustaining a Winning Culture – Paul Meehan, Darrell Rigby, and Paul Rogers

[4] The One Key to Building and Keeping a Great Company Culture

Why Organizational Culture?

In our present series on ‘Organizational Culture’, till now we essentially looked at What Is Organizational Culture, by looking at some basic aspects and its relationship with some of the key aspects that have direct relationship with it.

Now we will see Why Organizational Culture is (that Much !?) Important?

In order to appreciate the importance of the organizational culture, we need to understand what it means –

“Culture is how organizations ‘do things.” — Robbie Katanga

“In large part, culture is a product of compensation.” — Alec Haverstick

“Organizational culture defines a jointly shared description of an organization from within.” — Bruce Perron

“Organizational culture is the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.” — Richard Perrin

“Organizational culture is civilization in the workplace.” — Alan Adler

“Culture is the organization’s immune system.” — Michael Watkins

These are some important observations pushing against the view of culture as something that it is unitary and static, and toward a view that cultures are multiple, overlapping, and dynamic.

“Organizational culture [is shaped by] the main culture of the society we live in, albeit with greater emphasis on particular parts of it.” — Elizabeth Skringar

“It oversimplifies the situation in large organizations to assume there is only one culture… and it’s risky for new leaders to ignore the sub-cultures.” — Rolf Winkler

“An organization [is] a living culture… that can adapt to the reality as fast as possible.” — Abdi Osman Jama

These perspectives provide the kind of holistic, nuanced view of organizational culture that is needed by leaders in order to truly understand their organizations[1]

These reasons can be a good starting point to get you thinking about what your own organization brings to the table.

  1. It defines your company’s internal and external identity
  2. Organizational culture is about living your company’s core values
  3. Your culture can transform employees into advocates (or critics)
  4. A strong organizational culture helps you keep your best people
  5. A well-functioning culture assists with onboarding
  6. Your culture transforms your company into a team
  7. Culture impacts performance and employee wellbeing[2]

Having understood the importance of organization culture as a component of the organizational context, we will now look at a few representative articles to see its role in attaining the sustained success of the organization –

The culture is the formula, the DNA that provides guidelines, boundaries, and expectations for the team and to the customers and is the primary platform to inspiring and motivating the people. It is also the most powerful resource to attract, recruit, hire and retain the highest level of talent to the organization.

A successful organization is a learning organization. People’s quest for continual learning requires that people explore the company values, meaning, community, and culture with the help of lenses of their own beliefs and individual values. A culture of strong communication enables the people to realize their needs and expectations meaningfully within the contextual perspective of expected versus actual performance. [3]

Culture is heralded as one of the most important factors for a business’ long-term success — second to the overall business model, of course.

The first job a company culture has is to establish a clear set of priorities which align with the company’s overall goals. A company with a strong purpose, then, may be able to encourage more individuals to buy into that purpose and complete the feedback loop.

Moreover, a culture can be a great too in encouraging passion – at individual and at the collective levels. An ideal cultural environment is one in which to work is about more than just preventing the people from quitting; it’s about making them feel truly invested in their jobs.

In a way, company culture is a tool that keeps employees happy enough to produce their best work — and that means the company can push new boundaries and tread new ground.

Finally, maintaining a great internal company culture can develop a distinguishing reputation for your brand, in an external context. Unique brands always have an edge over brands that blend in with the competition, so the stronger your culture is, the stronger your brand can perform.[4]

A great organizational culture is one that empowers employees instead of limiting them. Empowering employees requires more than enabling them to exceed customer expectations. That’s just one aspect. A great culture gives employees the freedom and authority to be creative, to initiate innovative projects, and to adapt and respond in real-time with solutions that help their teams, the business, and the customer. Throughout the company, the decision-makers and experts in the company share information, resources, and power so that employees make decisions and solve problems on the spot.[5]

A strong culture can be a sustainable competitive advantage—if not the only sustainable competitive advantage—because it cannot be duplicated, unlike a product, price point, or delivery system. A healthy company culture provides an environment that supports stronger recruiting, retention, increased customer intimacy and loyalty, greater productivity, and an increased sense of employee ownership. A strong culture also directly impacts the bottom line.[6]

Even this brief visit to a very few articles provides us the basic outline of importance of the organizational culture in attaining the sustained success. That culture enables organization to nurture people who share their individual beliefs seamlessly with at of the organization. Once organization has a force of battle-ready people at its core,  its business model also becomes robust enough to brace up the challenges of the future such that the organization is able to expand its core competitive advantage(s).

[1] What Is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care? by Michael D. Watkins

[2] 7 reasons why organizational culture is important By Corey Moseley

[3] Why Company Culture is So Important to Business Success. – Peter Ashworth

[4] How Does Company Culture Actually Lead to Success?Jayson DeMers

[5] The Impact of Organizational Culture on Business Success – Kaplan Leadership and Professional Development

[6]  Is Culture Your Sustainable Competitive Advantage?Aileron

Organizational culture’s relationship with organization’s strategic direction

Strategy is organization’s overall plan to win in its marketplace. Culture is the sum of the beliefs and behaviours organization’s employees bring to work every day. Operations are simply how things get done at the organization.

The most frequent mention of the relationship between organization’s culture and organization’s strategic direction can be seen in Peter Drucker famously statement, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This is often interpreted as culture being more important than strategy.

It should be noted that strategy is not what the organization is trying to do (those are organization’s  goals), but rather it is how the organization plans to do it, and the organization’s culture determines how it actually works. The culture is how the strategy is executed To make it work, the organization has to ensure the availability of resources, including the time and commitment of the top management. It’s not enough to have a great strategy or a great culture; they have to be one and the same.[1]

Ken Wilcox, Chairman of the Silicon Valley Bank gave a compelling talk on the topic here. A few excerpts:

I believe that the most important things that a company can focus on are its strategy and its culture.  I also think that if you had to pick between the two, that culture trumps strategy every time. 

I think that because if you have a great culture, your people will develop a strategy that will win.  But if you don’t have a good culture, even a winning strategy will not be useful.[2]

Strategy, culture, and operations and inter-dependent, are  simultaneously impact each other.

Developing an effective strategy and culture is fundamentally about asking the right questions:[3]

One can find a wide array of literature that establishes the relationship between organization’s culture and the organization’s strategic direction, across a wide spectrum of parameters, including the context of the organization and the needs and expectations of the organization’s interested parties.

One more inference that can be drawn is that whatever form the relationship between organization’s culture and organization’s strategic direction shapes, in order to attain the sustained success, the culture and strategy should seamless aligned.

    • Strategy drives focus and direction while culture is the emotional, organic habitat in which a company’s strategy lives or dies
    • Strategy is about intent and ingenuity and culture determines and measures desire, engagement, and execution
    • Strategy lays down the rules for playing the game, and culture fuels the spirit for how the game will be played
    • Strategy is imperative for differentiation, but a vibrant culture delivers the strategic advantage
    • When culture embraces strategy, execution is scalable, repeatable and sustainable

Organizational culture is eating what it kills, when it is misaligned  – such as strategy, change management, innovation, operational efficiency, lean process and even including vision and mission. Culture trumps strategy every time![4]

There are seven ways organization’s strategy, culture, and operations can align with each other

One can think about which alignment sounds most like your organization:

Alignment 1 – Strategy Rules! – The culture and operations should be integral parts of company’s strategic plan development.

Alignment 2 – We Decide, You Do! – Brainstorm why some of the company’s initiatives underperform?

Alignment 3 – The Dream! – The dream – or even the vision -has not been translated into an executable game plan.

Alignment 4 – Silo / Turf War! results when your culture and operations are in alignment, but there is no common overall strategy. Each unit / department creates and act on the strategies they individually create.

Alignment 5 – Culture is King!– . No one knows how operations fit into the big  picture of the strategic outcome? An overall balance is needed.

Alignment 6 – Everyone’s on Board, I Hope It Works! results when the culture and strategy are in alignment, but with the operations, it is like rolling a dice, thinking it should work.

Alignment 7 – Sustained Results! When the strategy, culture, and operations are aligned, five things are crystal clear:

  • You know who you are.
  • You know where you are going.
  • You know how you will get there.
  • You know when you will get there.
  • You know you will have sustainable, scalable results.[5]

Here are a few videos that capture these discussions in the form of live discussions-

Culture vs. Strategy provides the basics.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast – Bob Faw discusses how to align your strategy with your culture for successful change efforts. Increase passion and profits with these ideas.

Strategy and Culture – The Secret Ingredient for Successful Enterprise Strategy – Regina Perkins, @ Cascade’s Engage Conference 2019 – Portland Oregon, discusses the five key conversations to building successful strategies and how culture underpins all of it. These are: the current state of the organization, the environmental constraints that act against them, what is at stake for the organization if the status quo persists, the desired future state, and the strategy that will move the organization from the current to future state.

However, the alignment of those five conversations is not enough. With a shared perspective to the desired future state and the strategy to achieve their objectives, leaders must intentionally account for culture and introduce and enact their strategy within that context. Defined as the line that separates the behaviors that are tolerated from the behaviors that are not tolerated within an organization, culture is the biggest off-balance sheet asset an organization has. Culture dictates what plans, strategies, and ideas get enacted. Strategy without the consideration for culture will fail to realize its full potential, to create impact and stimulate meaningful change.

Drawing upon deep experience helping organizations develop and implement successful strategies, this talk explores how culture underpins any successful strategy implementation.

Despite the critical importance of culture, strategy and infrastructure, what eats them all starts with whether or not you have a “healthy organization.” If you want to understand what is meant by healthy organization, watch the short video of Patrick Lencioni, author of some of leadership books including The Advantage..[6]

[1] Strategy Is CultureLuke Kanies

[2] Why culture trumps strategy

[3] Strategy / Culture Bicycle

[4] What is the relationship between corporate culture and strategyTorben Rick

[5] 7 Ways a Winning Strategy, Culture, and Operations Deliver ResultsWayne

[6] Culture vs. Strategy vs. Infrastructure? Which Wins in Health Care?

The Organizational Culture – Understanding the purpose of organization

Credit: Are You Working For A Purpose-Driven Organisation? – – Amanda Chua

The Purpose of an organization is the fundamental reason why the organization exists.

The Purpose of an organization is not the answer to the question “What do you do?” This typically focuses on products, services and customers. To clarify, it should answer the question “Why is the work you do important?”

Employees should find the Purpose inspirational and motivational. To sum up, it is the cause that defines their contribution to society through work. Businesses exist to make a profit. But they also exist to make a difference. Through work, individuals can make a difference. They can be part of a meaningful legacy.


  • Is a contribution to society
    • Not a product or service
  • Answers the question: Why is this work important?
  • Is inspirational and motivational
  • Uses powerful words
  • Is brief in length
    • So employees will remember it
  • Is broad in scope
    • To allow for opportunities and change.[1]

In its simplest form, purpose is the organization’s reason for being.It is a combination of vision, mission, and values. In order to define the purpose, three questions need to be answered –

  • What is our vision? – This is an inspirational question, The purpose emerges from the vision.
  • What is our mission? – The mission is the what of an organization
  • What are our values? Neither vision or mission mean much if they are not reinforced by strong values. Values shape the culture

Defining purpose, if one does not already exist, is an exercise in leadership. It is a means by which an organization comes to grips with how it sees itself.

True purpose does not exist in a vacuum. It must be put to good use.[2]

The purpose needs to be defined at personal, workplace role and organizational level. The balanced fruition of these three critical areas can help create a sweat spot, the benefits of which are felt by employees, teams, the organization, customers, and perhaps most importantly, society too. [3]

When organizations embrace purpose, it’s often because a crisis forces leader to challenge their assumptions about motivation and performance and to experiment with new approaches. The framework suggested by the following eight essential steps should help to overcome the largest barrier to embracing purpose—the cynical “transactional” view of employee motivation

Credit: The Economics of Higher Purpose: Eight Counter-Intuitive Steps for Creating a Purpose-Driven OrganizationRobert E. Quinn, Anjan V. Thakor

The purpose is not just a lofty ideal; it has practical implications for organization’s financial health and competitiveness. People who find meaning in their work don’t hoard their energy and dedication. They give them freely, defying conventional economic assumptions about self-interest. They grow rather than stagnate. They do more—and they do it better.

By tapping into that power, you can transform an entire organization.[4]

If the organization’s purpose impacts the WHY, HOW and WHAT you do, its culture is THE way of activating and authentically living it. Not knowing the purpose, or knowing it half-baked, can probably help skate … for a while. But rest assured, eventually the competition will soar past you because they will be more in tune where demographic, customer and market forces are moving.[5]

Here are some interesting video talks on this subject:

Dr. Doug Lepisto, assistant professor of Management at Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business, shares his insights on the organizational effects of a higher purpose from his 21-month ethnographic study at a global athletic footwear and apparel company.

Business is about purpose: R. Edward Freeman at TEDxCharlottesville 2013 explains that purpose of business is to create value rather than to maximize profit

The role of “Purpose” in transforming business | Cheryl Grise | TEDxOxbridge  – Cheryl speaks about purpose being at the heart of a successful organisation’s existence in a connected, fast paced and complex world.

Purpose in Business: Measuring What Matters: Jill Bamburg at TEDxBGI  – Jill Bamburg talks about how to measure purpose in the context of business.

[1] What is an organization’s Purpose? – Shela Margolis

[2] Give Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself – John Baldoni

[3] The Purpose Effect – Dan Pontefract

[4] Creating a Purpose-Driven OrganizationRobert E. Quinn, Anjan V. Thakor

[5] Why Your Organization’s Purpose is Important to Your Culture – Rich Berens

The Organizational Culture and The Organizational Leadership

[One would find very detailed commentaries on the subject of correlating the organizational leadership with the organizational culture.  In order to remain within the scope of our present series, I have picked up three representative articles here to briefly touch the subject, and in the process, laying foundation for linking it up with their relationship with the sustained success later in the series.]

Leaders play a significant role in shaping and maintenance of the culture in an organization. It is in the leadership process that the effect of culture becomes most perceptible. If it is the leadership that mobilizes attention towards a new vision, it is the corporate culture that confers legitimacy on that vision. Thus, it can be said that leadership and organizational culture are strongly intertwined and share a symbiotic relationship.[1]

Strategy and culture are among the primary levers at top leaders’ disposal in their never-ending quest to maintain organizational viability and effectiveness. Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms. Of the two, culture, however, is a more elusive lever, because much of it is anchored in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns.

Leaders may lay out detailed, thoughtful plans for strategy and execution, but because they don’t understand culture’s power and dynamics, their plans go off the rails. It doesn’t have to be that way. Culture can, in fact, be managed. The first and most important step leaders can take to maximize its value and minimize its risks is to become fully aware of how it works.[2]

Attributes of organizational culture

In order to understand the organizational culture, one approach is to understand four generally accepted attributes:

    • Shared – Culture is a group phenomenon. It cannot exist solely within a single person, nor is it simply the average of individual characteristics. It resides in shared behaviors, values, and assumptions and is commonly experienced through the unwritten norms and expectations of a group.
    • Pervasive – Culture permeates multiple levels and applies very broadly in an organization; sometimes it is even conflated with the organization itself. It is manifest in collective behaviors, physical environments, group rituals, visible symbols, stories, and legends. Other aspects of culture are unseen, such as mindsets, motivations, unspoken assumptions, and what David Rooke and William Torbert refer to as “action logics” (mental models of how to interpret and respond to the world around you).
    • Enduring – Culture can direct the thoughts and actions of group members over the long term. It develops through critical events in the collective life and learning of a group. Its endurance is explained in part by the attraction-selection-attrition model first introduced by Benjamin Schneider: People are drawn to organizations with characteristics similar to their own; organizations are more likely to select individuals who seem to “fit in”; and over time those who don’t fit in tend to leave. Thus, culture becomes a self-reinforcing social pattern that grows increasingly resistant to change and outside influences.
    • Implicit – An important and often overlooked aspect of culture is that despite its subliminal nature, people are effectively hardwired to recognize and respond to it instinctively. It acts as a kind of silent language. Shalom Schwartz and E.O. Wilson have shown through their research how evolutionary processes shaped human capacity; because the ability to sense and respond to culture is universal, certain themes should be expected to recur across the many models, definitions, and studies in the field.

Understanding the organizational culture

Two primary dimensions that apply regardless of organization type, size, industry, or geography: people interactions and response to change. Understanding a company’s culture requires determining where it falls along these two dimensions.

  • People interactions – An organization’s orientation toward people interactions and coordination will fall on a spectrum from highly independent to highly interdependent.
  • Response to change – Whereas some cultures emphasize stability—prioritizing consistency, predictability, and maintenance of the status quo—others emphasize flexibility, adaptability, and receptiveness to change.

Culture styles

By applying this fundamental insight about the dimensions of people interactions and response to change, eight styles that apply to both organizational cultures and individual leaders can be identified.

Caring focuses on relationships and mutual trust. Work environments are warm, collaborative, and welcoming places where people help and support one another. Employees are united by loyalty; leaders emphasize sincerity, teamwork, and positive relationships.

Purpose is exemplified by idealism and altruism. Work environments are tolerant, compassionate places where people try to do good for the long-term future of the world. Employees are united by a focus on sustainability and global communities; leaders emphasize shared ideals and contributing to a greater cause.

Learning is characterized by exploration, expansiveness, and creativity. Work environments are inventive and open-minded places where people spark new ideas and explore alternatives. Employees are united by curiosity; leaders emphasize innovation, knowledge, and adventure.

Enjoyment is expressed through fun and excitement. Work environments are light-hearted places where people tend to do what makes them happy. Employees are united by playfulness and stimulation; leaders emphasize spontaneity and a sense of humour.

Results is characterized by achievement and winning. Work environments are outcome-oriented and merit-based places where people aspire to achieve top performance. Employees are united by a drive for capability and success; leaders emphasize goal accomplishment.

Authority is defined by strength, decisiveness, and boldness. Work environments are competitive places where people strive to gain personal advantage. Employees are united by strong control; leaders emphasize confidence and dominance.

Safety is defined by planning, caution, and preparedness. Work environments are predictable places where people are risk-conscious and think things through carefully. Employees are united by a desire to feel protected and anticipate change; leaders emphasize being realistic and planning ahead.

Order is focused on respect, structure, and shared norms. Work environments are methodical places where people tend to play by the rules and want to fit in. Employees are united by cooperation; leaders emphasize shared procedures and time-honored customs.

An organizational culture can be defined by the absolute and relative strengths of each of the eight styles and by the degree of employee agreement about which styles characterize the organization. A powerful feature of framework, depicted in the above diagram, integrates organizational culture attributes with culture styles. What differentiates it from other models, is that it can also be used to define individuals’ styles and the values of leaders and employees.

The eight styles can, thus, be used to diagnose and describe highly complex and diverse behavioral patterns in a culture and to model how likely an individual leader is to align with and shape that culture.

The following sketch, adapted from the article, Turnaround the Corporate Culture – Business Operations Performance Management, very vividly shows the ‘rad to do’ and easy to do’ areas of an organizational leader’s role.

The current literature that differentiates leaders from managers would place ‘hard to do’ areas into the leader domain and easy to-do’ areas in a manager domain.

In a changing society, new leadership styles are emerging. Professor Joseph E Trimble, in this TEDxWWU talk – Culture and leadership – calls out the old dominating styles and brings to light more inclusive, diverse and effective options.

In order to build a winning culture, the top teams must be seen by the organization as living the values and walking the talk.

Organizations are shadows of their leaders ….. that’s the good news and the bad news

The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.

Organizations can’t change if leaders can’t change with them[3]

To sum up., the organizational culture is a very powerful tool in the hands of the leader to accomplish sustained competitive advantage. However, to use the culture as a powerful tool, leader needs to ensure that strategy that is laid out to sustain the success, is consistent with changing context of the organization and is aligned with e organizational culture.

Additional reference:

Organizational Culture and Leadership, 5th Edition – Edgar H. Schein, Peter A. Schein (With)

[1] Examining the Relationship between Organisational Culture and Leadership Styles

[2] The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture

[3] The organizational shadow impact