Culture: An Advantage or Death Penalty?


Once again culture was thrust into the limelight of the media as NCAA President, Mark Emmert, handed out sanctions to Penn State University. While they did avoid the SMU’s 1987 death penalty, Mr. Emmert clearly highlighted the importance of culture when he said “for the next several years PSU can focus on rebuilding their athletic culture, not whether they will be going to a bowl game.” It doesn’t matter if it’s PSU, Enron, conclusions about some banks during the financial crisis or a controversy that rocks a faith-based organization, non-profit or other organization to its core – culture matters.

Culture is unfortunately highlighted more often as a reason for why bad behavior was allowed to go unchecked than as an incredibly important factor for organizations achieving breakthrough results and astounding impact on society. The importance of culture is undeniable as recently highlighted in an IBM survey of more than 1600 CEO’s. 75% of CEO’s identified the importance of developing a more open and collaborative culture as being critical for managing the complexity of business today. The focus on the importance of “culture” was also referenced in the recent annual innovation survey by Booze & Company. They found “spending more on R&D won’t drive results. The most crucial factors are strategic alignment and a culture that supports innovation.”

Culture is continually referenced and you can find best practices, guidelines and other tips all over the place. Unfortunately, many of these approaches lack a clear process to build clarity and alignment in a way that propels an organization forward in support of their vision and strategy. I tried many approaches as a business executive over regional and global organizations for nearly 15 years. Some worked quite well and are highlighted in the recently released book by Dan Denison called Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. Others were refined through experience I built on when I was President of Denison Consulting, a leader in the organizational culture field that has worked with over 5000 organizations.

The overall process should work within a framework of four key areas. These areas have been successfully managed in organizations of all size, type, industry, and geography. These best practices ring true in education, healthcare, manufacturing, services, for-profit / non-profit, large / small, public / private and across all other industries and segments.

1. Build an awareness of culture and commit to refine your strategies and plans based on an understanding of your organizational culture.

  • Organizations often start by clarifying some of the key challenges they have as an organization. Think about frustrations with “the way things work around here” that are holding your organization back from reaching its potential. It also helps to define strengths you need leverage in support of your vision or strategy as you understand how to further improve your culture.

2. Measure your culture and engage the organization in understanding the results at a deeper level.

  • I am absolutely amazed by how many expert opinions about culture change lack this basic and absolutely obvious fundamental. Some organizations think they may be covering this measurement through an engagement, climate, satisfaction or other survey but they are actually only evaluating a fraction of the overall culture. Use a research-based tool with a substantial benchmark database so you will be compared to many other organizations. Engage your organization in the process to move from the fog of opinions and lack of clarity about your culture to a clearly defined picture of what you are all about. You’ll understand the overall culture and how it varies by department, division, level, geography or other key sub-groups. It’s like taking an MRI of your culture. This clear definition of “who we are” is critical for the next step where strengths are leveraged and weak areas improved that have been holding the organization back.

3. Engage the organization in feedback and prioritization to define a few key improvements.

  • Utilize feedback and prioritization techniques to understand your culture assessment results and to identify the top improvements to leverage strengths and improve weak areas that are holding you back. Many organizations obtain feedback but then employees are left wondering what will happen next. The key is prioritization as a team and not just more feedback. It may take voting, debate, focus groups or another simple surveys but prioritization as a team is the key so the organization feels clearly engaged in the process to define the priorities. It sometimes helps to focus on 1-3 current organizational strategies or plans and to engage in feedback and prioritization around how to manage them more effectively after you clarify the strengths and weaknesses of your culture.

4. Measure progress consistently and refine improvements with discipline and determination.

  • John Kotter references the need to implement a new “operating model” as part of the change. Think about habits and routines more than one-time actions. How will you need to adjust meeting schedules, communication plans, measurements, tracking formats, team structures or other areas to improve how you manage the 1-3 priorities you identified? It will be important to monitor key measures related to the top priorities since culture clearly impacts performance however you define “performance” in your organization. There will need to be regularly scheduled feedback and prioritization routines to identify and build on what’s working and to adjust actions that aren’t having the desired impact. The organization will see what’s working and what’s not and will spread the good ideas of your new operating model to areas outside of the 1-3 priorities you originally identified. You’ll know at that point you have the flywheel of culture change moving and gaining momentum.

This is obviously a very simplified framework of the general process but I consistently see organizations of all types struggling with the process to improve their culture. It requires incredible discipline and consistency but it is possible to make tremendous progress in 6-12 months. Jim Collins said “a culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.” It will also help to further support a culture of discipline through collective clarification of values and behaviors any team member should expect from each other. You may not build a culture like Zappos where hundreds of employees, customers and suppliers share stories about your culture in an annual Zappos Family Culture Book but you will make clear and measurable progress and the process will also be fun and enlightening.

The Penn State Board of Trustees is embarking on an effort to evaluate and rebuild “the fundamental culture that is Penn State.” The culture change will unfortunately be in response to a terrible tragedy like in some other organizations. Fortunately, many organizations see how they must build a culture advantage and relentlessly grow clarity and alignment as a team to reach their full potential. A great culture will not guarantee the elimination of horrible behavior but it will mercilessly eject those individuals to preserve the culture when it occurs.