Peter Drucker famously said that “…culture will eat strategy for lunch.” And, indeed it will. As a consequence, much of the leadership development and change management work in organizations is oriented toward the changing or development and subsequent care and feeding of “culture”. Unfortunately, many if not most, culture change initiatives bear little to no tangible fruit. Why is this so?
I believe the reason culture change is difficult is that most leaders – and most of the consultants that advise them – don't understand what culture is or where it comes from. Consequently, a lot of change activities that are undertaken are focused on areas that have little to nothing to do with the emergence and presence of a specific culture.
Culture exists as a phenomenon of relationship. Culture is not a “thing” that can be seen, touched, smelled or tasted yet it is very real. It is the defining context that provides meaning to every encounter and every activity individuals undertake in an organization.
To fully appreciate what I mean when I say that culture is a phenomenon of relationship we need to acknowledge a simple truth. Despite what the Supreme Court says, organizations (companies) don’t actually exist! Oh sure, there are buildings, contracts, legal documents, brochures, desks and logos and all manner of other physical “things” that can be pointed to as evidence of a company’s existence. One can even cite the intangibles (good will and brand). But these don’t constitute a company. And, certainly none of these things are the source of an organization’s culture.
Organizations are nothing more (and nothing less) than a collection of individuals who are in relationship. They are in relationship with other individuals, with vendors and customers, with work process, with compensation packages, with rules and regulations, with notions of fairness and success, with ideas such as vision, value and mission, with goals and titles and roles, and with desks, parking spots and computers. They are in relationship with literally anything and everything they encounter within the domain of the organization.
It is the aggregate nature and quality of all of these myriad relationships that give birth to culture. It is these varied relationships that form the culture that determines what behaviors are appropriate and tolerated, how work is done, who “owns” results, how much accountability and responsibility is taken or shared or avoided, and what it “feels” like in the organization.
In order to transform a culture the focus needs to be on shifting the nature of the relationships that individuals have with what and who they encounter in the organizational domain. This is where the true work is done. This is where the challenge is. And, this is where leaders need to develop the competency of creating and maintaining high quality relationships. Relationships that give rise to cultures that value the kind of coordinated movement needed to produce the actions necessary to get desired results.
Culture is a phenomenon of relationship...and treating it as such provides fertile ground for truly causing meaningful change.