In June, Helene Wolf suggested in this blog post that “strategy and culture should have breakfast together…” Her comment was made following an International Civil Society Centre -sponsored meeting of programme, policy and operations directors in which participants discussed how to increase the impact of their organisations and their work. Peter Drucker’s observation that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” when strategy and culture are not aligned surfaced more than once during these discussions.
Indeed, in our work with International Civil Society Organisation (ICSO) leaders over the past few years, we have found that failing to make the necessary adjustments to the existing culture when introducing a major change or executing a new strategy is one of the top six hazards to which ICSOs are most susceptible. Sometimes this failure is due to a lack of appreciation for the critical role that culture plays in helping or hindering realisation of change; other times, it is due to the leader’s hope that the necessary culture change will somehow take care of itself. In our experience, when it is not specifically attended to, culture inevitably undermines or even defeats full realisation of the change or strategy.
To circumvent this hazard, leaders need to understand the components of organisational culture, as well as when and how to attempt to change it so that it will support their changes or new strategies. In our latest paper, we define organisational culture — “the way we do things around here”— as the patterns of shared mindsets and behaviours which have been acquired over time by members of the organisation. Culture provides guidance, whether intentional or not, on what is done (or not), how it is done (if it is), and why it is (or isn’t) done. Culture permeates every organisation and plays an important role in providing a strong foundation for organisational success in stable environments. This is because culture operates in ways that ensure its own continuity. Thus, when an organisation needs to maintain the status quo, the culture that has contributed to that current state helps to keep everything on track. However, when a major change or disruption requires a shift in the prevailing mindsets and behaviours, the organisation’s existing culture will likely work to defeat it.
Before introducing a major change or executing a new strategy, ICSO leaders need to identify the mindsets and behaviours that are critical to fully realising the desired impact of the change or strategy, and assess to what extent these mindsets and behaviours are present in the existing culture. The greater the gap between the existing culture and the one required for full realisation, the higher the risk of not achieving the desired change outcomes and the greater the effort in making the necessary cultural shifts.
Leaders also need to assess the strength of the existing culture. Strong cultures that are inconsistent with the new change or strategy can present formidable challenges to leaders’ attempts to change them. In these cases, shifting the culture may prove too great a challenge or may exceed the organisation’s capacity to change at that point in time. The alternative to changing the culture is to “change the change” itself in ways that lessen the gap between the existing culture and the one required for successful realisation of the change.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many important initiatives cannot be accomplished if they are significantly modified. When this is the case, rather than change the change, leaders may have no other choice than to change the culture.
Culture change should not be taken on casually, nor should the potential need for it be deferred or ignored. Shifting cultural norms is one of the most challenging endeavours an organisation can undertake. Regardless of the final decision—to change the culture or to change the change itself—leaders need to be mindful of aligning the mindsets and behaviours of their organisation with those required by the change or new strategy. Otherwise, they face almost certain disappointment and frustration in not fully realising the intent of their organisational changes or strategies.