Organizational Culture Change: Why and How

by Marcella Bremer on June 20, 2011

Organizational culture change seems to be a trending topic these days. Searching the forums you can find lots of discussions about it. This blog will inform you about organizational culture change. We’ll gladly share our experience with you. We’ve been working as consultants in the field of organizational culture change for many years and find it interesting and fascinating. It is about the human factor in groups: It can do magic and on the other hand ruin results…

Organizational Culture Change Failure rate

Organizational Culture Change failure rateYou might have heard about the 70% failure rate of organizational culture change: wonderful organizational culture change programs that were never implemented because of defiance or lack of interest or lethargy or simply being too busy. You might have experienced the pleasure of working with great colleagues or suffered the annoyance of an intimidating boss. You’ve heard the HR department worry about retention and employee motivation. You’ ve heard top executives complaining about organizational performance and hiring Organizational Development consultants. You have noticed the boredom of front desk staff when calling technical support. Or on the contrary, you’ve enjoyed being served very well, even above expectations. The good old under promise and over deliver!

Those are all examples of organizational culture. It’s how we do things around here. And we do things our special way, because we share beliefs about our reality. “We believe helping customers is a challenge. Or we think of our clients as an annoyance, keeping us from work.”
These, often subconscious assumptions, shape our common behavior. And even if they didn’t, our co-workers or executives would. People are inclined to condition each other’s behavior. We copy and correct one another. If you wish to fit in to this group: you better do not differ too much! And if you want extra: meet your bosses’ criteria! If you want to have a career, you better fit in here. You may understand why it is not easy to incorporate organizational culture change.

Organizational culture offers a group:

  • A familiar quality: “we belong together, we fit in, everyone here is like me”
  • Self-assurance: “this is how we see things around here, this is our target, these are our criteria, this is right, and that is wrong”
  • Momentum: “we only need a few words and we don’t need to check with each other all the time”

So we share assumptions and shape each other’s behavior to do what we do. And that’s what gets us our results. It’s how we perform. It’s what hampers or enhances performance, change, retention, motivation, climate, management style, customer satisfaction, turnover and profits. It’s as simple and complicated as that. It’s the group’s multiplier effect: the leverage to magic or disaster.

Do you need more arguments to look at organizational culture change seriously…? That’s the why of organizational culture. Sometimes you just can’t afford not to change it.

Organizational culture change process

But how does organizational culture change come about? Organizational culture change is such a subtle and yet fierce group process. Organizational culture change is so comprehensive. Organizational culture change is about everything, so where would you start? And how would you know what you were doing? You can measure your profits and other key performance indicators, but where are the figures about values, beliefs, assumptions, interactions and behavior? Because organizational performance depends on behavior.

Here is the reason why many executives let it be. They delegate organizational culture change to the HR manager.

“Organizational Culture Change is not tangible

Organizational Culture Change is vague

Organizational Culture Change is soft.”

But organizational culture change is so distinctive in getting you results that you can’t afford to let it be.

One popular approach to organizational culture change comes from Edgar Schein. He discerns 3 levels: the artifacts that are visible at the surface, the espoused values that are consciously pursued (goals, strategies) and the basic assumptions that are unconscious taken-for-granted beliefs and feelings.

That’s a beautiful model about organizational culture change, but I have to deal with everyday business life. How does this relate to my call center, the marketing department, my account managers, the R&D techies and the shop floor?

So let’s make it as simple and tangible as possible. This is where professors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn from the University of Michigan come in. They developed a quick but effective tool to assess organizational culture change and to work with organizational culture change, very practically.
Their instrument is validated and based on extensive research concerning the effectiveness or organizations. When they had developed the model about organizational culture change and tested it thoroughly, it came down to “only” 6 factors that define culture and 2 dimensions were found to impact organizational culture change. That was so little, that one of their prestigious first clients asked if they could add some more questions to the instrument to make it look more serious. This anecdote shows that we often think that theories and tools need to be complicated to be true and taken seriously. They aren’t. Simple is beautiful.

Check out more about organizational culture change in Organizational Culture Change: Why and How part 2.



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