“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is one of my favorite Peter Drucker quotes, attributed to him in 2006. Yet, it remains as powerful today as ever, with a more recent publication in 2013 by Curt Coffman and Kathie Sorenson titled Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch. Is dinner much further behind? Indeed, culture transcends all meals and has emerged as a key factor in organizational performance, good or bad. How can we harness this powerful concept to build an awesome culture within our public sector organizations?
First, we need to understand what culture is. Culture is the values, beliefs, and behaviors practiced in an organization. Basically, it defines the proper way to behave within an organization. One only has to do something outside of the cultural norm to quickly understand through various feedback mechanisms, peer or supervisory, that they have stepped outside of the boundaries.
“We don’t do things that way around here.”
This type of feedback reinforces the shared beliefs and values that make up culture, shaping employee perceptions and behaviors. What can make this hard is that culture is both visible and invisible. Some elements come about because of visible, often written, policies and protocols, professional standards, and stated values. But many cultural elements are unseen – these are the unwritten rules that drive employee behavior. Things like norms and expectations of the group. An example might be, it is okay to show up to meetings a few minutes late if you are prepared when you arrive or sometimes you can get away with asking for forgiveness rather than permission on decisions.
In any organization it is important to realize that the culture we have was formed over time because it was rewarded or punished by formal and informal rules, rituals and behaviors. This is both good and bad news. If you have some pervasive less-than-desirable behavior in your organization, it is likely being reinforced through some mechanism that might be hard to pinpoint and change. But the good news is that once you understand what is driving the behavior you can influence and change it.
Dave Gray, the author of The Connected Company, created a tool to do just that – the Culture Map. This tool gives you a framework to map your current culture and create a strategy to move to a different desired cultural state.
The first step is to identify the behaviors you are seeing. What do we do? What do we say? How do we act? It is important to be honest and to recognize that you may have different cultures in different parts of your organization. An example of a behavior might be a 24-hour response time to customers, both internal and external.
The second step is to define the outcomes. What results are we seeing? What are we getting done? What is the impact? Following through on our example with response time, how does that response time result in happy customers or good teamwork?
You might think that was the hard part, but the next step, Enablers and Blockers, is where it gets really interesting. With this step you will map out the things that lead to positive or negative behaviors. What formal and explicit things like rules, incentives and procedures are influencing behavior. Don’t forget the informal and implicit things like unwritten rules, habits, and routines, they are often even more powerful.
Let’s take an example of an organization that wants to be more innovative. Some examples of blockers might be one-size fits all decision making, laborious approval processes, or lack of recognition for improving even simple processes. Enables might be a risk-acceptance mentality, supporting learning labs, practices that support iterative piloting, or recognition at an all-staff meeting.
Thinking through a Culture Map can be a valuable exercise within your organization so that you understand your current culture and can more thoughtfully guide any desired culture changes. When an organization has a strong culture, three things happen:
Based on our work with public sector organizations we have identified seven elements of an awesome culture. These elements can form the foundation for formal and informal and explicit and implicit behavior guides.
To start making a culture change select one or two of the behaviors above, or something else that is critical to the success of your organization. Then figure out how to make those behaviors easier, more rewarding, and normal for people to do. You can use the Culture Map to determine Enablers.
What we mean by easier is employees know how to exhibit the behavior and things don’t get in the way of the new behavior. More rewarding simply means employees will like the outcome when doing the new behavior. Lastly, let’s look at normal. When employees think about who they admire or want to emulate, is that person exhibiting the new behavior? If they are, it can be a strong pull toward a new normal way of doing things.
Usually, making the new behaviors easier, more rewarding and more normal involves a variety of methods like offering skill development or knowledge, establishing incentives, removing organizational impediments, and supporting leaders to commit to consistently modeling these behaviors.
What you will find over time is that people are drawn to organizations with characteristics and values 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 endures.
Therefore, paying attention to culture and making course corrections along the way will keep your organization on track and help you steer hiring decisions toward people who will continue your success and safeguard your organization from spiraling into something you don’t recognize.
CPS HR Consulting is a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of integrated HR solutions to government and nonprofit clients across the country. Our strategic approach to increasing the effectiveness of human resources results in improved organizational performance for our clients. We have a deep expertise and unmatched perspective in guiding our clients in the areas of organizational strategy, recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, and training and development.