Addressing organizational cultural change 

A Releasing Your Unlimited Creativity discussion topic

Copyright 2008 by K. Ferlic, † All Rights Reserved

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When looking at significant organizational change that can be described as transforming the organization, restructuring an organization or reengineering an organization it may be necessary to look at changing the organizational culture.

The word culture when used in reference to a group of individuals is seen as the sum total of the attainments and learned behavioral patterns of any specific period, race, or people regarded as expressing a traditional way of life subject to gradual but continual modification by succeeding generations. To talk about an organizational culture, we are talking about the sum total of the attainments and learned behavioral pattern of the group of individuals within that organization and their way of being within that organization that gradually changes over time.

Whether we realize it or not, every organization has a culture. Often the organizational culture is more or less the same as the social culture in which the organization operates. However, if the organization has any function that requires a specific way of doing business for whatever reason, it will develop a culture unique unto itself. Here again, how different the organizational culture is from the social culture depends on exactly what the organization does and expects of its members.

Two comments do need to be made on the definition of culture expressed above relative to an organization. One is about the "sum total of the attainments and learned behavioral patterns" and the second is "subject to gradual but continual modification by succeeding generations."

Any organization which comes into existence to deliver a product or service has achieved an "attainment." As a minimum it has attained an existed based on its mission and function. The way that organization exists and operate gets explicitly or implicitly gets encoded in it organizational rules and policies and its preferred ways of do business within and externally with the world. Some organization develop "codes of conduct" for the employees along with strict rules and punishments for certain types and kinds of behavior. What this means is any shift in the mission and function of the organization and/or things that go into its code of conduct as to how business is performed is an attempt to change the culture to some degree.

Similarly, it needs to be understood, culture is subject to a gradual but continual modification. It is not static but will evolve. Relative to an organization, a "succeeding generation" is often the time period of key managers being in charge. That is, each manager has a preferred style of operation and personal quirks that influence how the organization does business. If the manager is in a position of influence in the organization, not necessary in authority, but has significant influence on how the organizational functions as a result of how they manage or their strong personality, they can and will cause changes in the organizational culture.

On this point is that if key managers stay for long periods of time, the organization culture will often reflect personality quirks of the key managers. If the key managers changes often, a culture will develop somewhat independent of the key manager. In this case any change a new manager tries to make is usually tolerated for the duration of their stay and the organization returns to its preferred way of doing business.

The issue for organizational creativity and/or the transformation of an organization is to realize what influences an organizational culture and whether the changes being made are changes that can readily be absorbed because the organization is responsive or do the employees need to be educated so as to adopt a new culture. Any manager at any level brought into an organization or moved in a organization in order to "shake things up" is going to have to face a change in culture whether they realize it or not and want to face it or not. Giving orders and direction will not do the job. The culture will have to be changed.

A story about organizational culture change

Once upon a time, there once was an organization and industrial complex site that existed (no this is not a fairy tale - it really existed) for about fifty years that produced very important components and materials for nuclear weapons. The materials out of which the components were made were hazardous for several different reason so there were both worker and public health and safety concerns. [An additional discussion of this story is found in the topic, "Origins of the orchestrating the organization philosophy."]

The facility existed for a time and with the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics the organization and facilities were dismantled. The reason for its dismantlement was not that the work performed by the organization was no longer needed. Rather, when the facilities were first built it was rather isolated and removed from civilization. However, over time with urban sprawl and the changing role of cities over time, housing and businesses began to grow close to the facilities. In was no longer appropriate to have such a facility so close to the increasing density of the population.

What is interesting about this story is the role the organization culture played in the final years of its existence. After operating under a given set of health and safety rule for about almost 40 years, the world was faced with the Chernobyl nuclear accident which is now in the Ukrainian Republic. The response to the Chernobyl accident caused all nuclear facilities in the United Stated to be reviewed for potential health and safety issues and concerns. In the review, it was discovered there were health and safety upgrades that should be done at this facility and at a variety of other nuclear facilities.

As the upgrades at this facility were progressing, some unexpected safety issues were discovered. These newly discovered safety concerns necessitated shutting done one of the many facilities on the site. However, when the facility operations were shut down, and the string pulled as to the cause of the safety concern which shut the operations down, additional safety issues were identified. The condition could best be described as the organization infrastructure in place could not carry and support the new load of additional health and safety requirements. There was a daisy chain of upgrades that needed to be performed and the whole facility operations needed to be reengineered.

The solution seemed simply enough. Bring in individuals from an existing organization that had the reputation for handling such reengineering issues to fix the problems. So, the upper middle and senior management was replaced and/or reshuffled . However, that change created additional unexpected problems and organizationally things only got worse.

It was during this period with the new organizational management trying to find ways out of the hole that seemed to continually get deeper that the author had a conversation with a manager who was at the site for about twenty years. As they talked about the issues that were being faced the manager made two comments that caught the authorís attention One was, "For over twenty years the focus of this site was production, production, production. And we received award after award for our good production. Now the emphasis is on safety. It is causing us to refocus how we do business and it is making things different. We canít do business the way we use to do business." The other was a story that came a few minutes later.

The manager said, "Let me tell you what the employees say about how they are managed and the prevalent management philosophy. Initially and for twenty years it was "King of the Hill." That is, The building manager was God. He was in charge of everything. Because of security and safety concerns, each building on the site was an entity unto itself. The building manager run everything In fact, many of the buildings were separated from each other with fences because of their security of safety concerns. You did not go anywhere or do anything without the approval of the building manager."

"This, of course, was a very inefficient and expensive way of doing business. So about seven years ago, someone got the bight idea to use the matrix management that was being used so successfully in the aircraft industry The idea was to centralize functions and matrix out services to the building. That change cause the reign of Humpty Dumpty. That is, the building manager was destroyed and his power taken away but they did not replace that author with anything that effective bridged the old way of doing business with a new matrix approach. That, of course, cause confusion and inefficiency. As in the Humpty Dumpy story, all the kings solders and all the kingís men could not put back together what they destroyed."

"So, production suffered and that, of course, got everyoneís attention. A new management team was bought in to fix the problem about three years ago. That started the Reign of Terror. That is, the man in charge did not want to hear bad news Anyone who brought bad news was shot. They were removed and replaced. Now we have another team that is suppose to fix our current shutdown."

It was then the author realized the employees were confused. The turnover of personnel at the site was not that great. Over the period of about twelve years individuals were promoted, rewarded, shuffled about based on the current management philosophy. In general, employees no longer knew what was managerially safe or how to managerially deal with the issues they faced. In this realization the author went to talk to a more senior manager who had access to the individual making the determination as to how to proceed. In telling this story that the employees tell about management, this more senior manager replied somewhat condescendingly but jokingly to the author, "What are you, a F...... psychologist." The reply back was "No, but when employees tell such stories about their management, they are confused and donít know how to proceed or who to trust." This more senior manager agreed and went to talk to the individual planing how the recovery would go. Unfortunately, the meaning of the story was lost on them and they proceeded without consideration of the confusion of the staff.

About year later after another failure there was a new senior manager at the site and circumstances arose such that the author was able to have lunch with the most senior manager at the site. The author took the opportunity to tell the manager the story as to what the employees were saying about the management and explained why it was an issue. It was also stated the employees needed to be reeducation on expectations especially not shooting the messenger of bad news. It was explained how the authorís organization was going about changing its culture and the site could do something similar.

Fortunately, that senior manager listen, understood and agreed. He then began a program to reeducation all the site employees as to the expectations as to how business would be done and held the organization accountable to those expectations. The success of the effort did show and the site began to move out of the hole it created for itself. But the real success came several years later the author was talking to one of the former subordinates of that senior manager about the changes when they were both engaged in teaching a third organization about such cultural changes. His comment was, "At first, I didnít believe what you were telling us. However, in time, I came to see the wisdom and now I teach people how to do it."

Most organizations will not have to face such radical changes in expectation nor will they have to face changing environment conditions that call into existence their very existence. However, the above story does give a flavor of what is meant by the organizational culture and how management causes that culture to change and evolve over time.

What to do to change organizational culture

The key to changing organizational culture and the way an organization is to do business is to give understanding. Von Stuben probably said it best at Valley Forge during the American Revolution. He is reported to have said, "In Germany I tell the men to do something and they do it. In American I must first tell them why and then they do it."

To get people to change the way they do business there will either need to be pain or understanding. The pain arises either from the pain an individual or organization suffers for doing something in a painful way or it arises from the pain imposed on individuals as punishment for not doing what they are told. Imposing pain will not nurture the creative spirit but only sets the organization up for long term problems. Pain arising from a painful way of doing something will cause the creative sprit to retreat to avoid the pain Only understanding offers a way to change the way something is done yet not thwart the creative spirit or even nurture it growth. In may ways when the individual understands why something needs to be done, the creative spirit becomes challenged to find even more enjoyable ways of doing that task which often ends up being a win-win for the individual and the organization.

For those that are interested in changing an organizational culture the discussion topic, "Some thoughts on how to go about changing organizational culture" found in the Password Protect Area provides some way that have been useful for other organizations and those used to address the story above.

Related topics
Shifting the culture of the organization
Some thoughts on how to go about changing organizational culture

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