Organizational Culture: Making the Invisible Visible

Posted on

“Culture eats strategy for lunch”. Peter Drucker

Those who rub shoulders with me regularly have likely heard me quote this more than once. It’s a cornerstone concept in my organizational development work. Patrick Lencioni reframed this same idea when he stated that he would rather lead a unified team with an average strategy than a fractious team with an excellent strategy.

Most organizational leaders understand the importance of having a unified culture. However, I find there is much less clarity in how to facilitate understanding and practice of this culture. This process, something I call cultural transference, is how we help people understand and practice the norms of our organizational culture.

As I observe organizations, I find two the following two strategies dominate how we facilitate cultural tranference:

  1. The Virus Strategy: This implicit strategy is built on the idea of ‘watch me and do as I do’. This approach assumes that culture is strong enough to catch. Somewhat like the cold virus, given enough time, it will spread (and most everyone will catch it).
  2. The Immunization Strategy: This explicit strategy is built by defining culture and then intentionally communicating it. This culture is written down and prescribed to every employee – often with several booster shots.

I have seen the virus strategy work but believe it is risky. While culture can be caught, our environments are equally receptive to hosting different cultural strains. There is low certainty that the right virus will spread to all corners of your organization.

The immunization strategy is much more effective but it also takes more work. When culture is taught (and not caught), we have a higher chance of infusing the right strain into our organizational DNA. It does not guarantee cultural transference, but it creates clarity and provides a litmus test by which we can assess when people are not a cultural fit.

Culture provides us with a sense of organizational identity and generates a shared commitment to beliefs and values that are larger than themselves (Richard Daft). If this is true, culture is not a one-size-fits-all product. Different cultures have different purposes and achieve different outcomes. The goal is to develop a culture that fits your mission and strategic goals. Will you choose to accomplish this through a virus or an immunization strategy? Which of these two strategies do you most regularly encounter?

If you need to develop an organizational cultural immunization strategy please contact me.


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a cultural virologist, a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

References

Richard Daft (2013). Organization theory and design.

Image Credit

2 comments

  1. Shawn Manley

    How do you make room for companies like Apple, who has almost no identifiable guiding principles, but has one of the most recognizable cultures and brand of any company? Walmart, GE and Starbucks also famously forego explicit cultural descriptions. Do you think each demonstrates the “virus strategy”? If so, they must really have a knack for creating culture pandemics. Thanks for the read!

    reply
    • Jeff Suderman

      On the surface, Apple is an example of how a virus strategy can work. However, I am guessing that amidst their decluttered approach, they have an executive team that know exactly what their ideal culture looks like (deformalized immunization). There can be a negative backlash to the immunization strategy if it is carried out with force. This is often a sign that culture is fragmented and the organization is force-feeding it to their staff in order to create conformity. An organization like Apple may resist this by finding middle ground between these two approaches.

      reply

Leave a Reply