During a recent client engagement, I was struck by a small moment that gave me a different perspective on the elusive goal of “culture change.” Our team was working with a healthcare client to co-create a new process for handling disagreements within their organization, which struck us all as sensible and helpful. A key member of the client organization then observed, “Now we have to get past our culture of, ‘this is just one more meeting.’” Another leader observed, then, “If this process saves us time and headache, then yes: it is one more meeting, but one that will prevent unnecessary conflict which wastes time.”
The conversation we heard highlights a key observation about organizational culture that can all too easily go unnoticed: cultures change, often organically and on their own. It can often be difficult to observe this phenomenon directly because cultures typically change slowly, in undetectable and incremental ways. The second speaker in this conversation made a small comment in one meeting, but it helped this group begin to think differently about a known process. If the process works, more people will be open to the idea of saving time through open and authentic discussion. Over the course of several years, hopefully the idea will continue to take root. A new employee in five or six years may hear about their process for working through disagreements from someone who with longer tenure, and may describe it as, ‘an important part of our culture.’
Whether leaders want it to or not, organizational culture shifts over time, although not always in ways we intend. Influential people retire. Novel ideas sweep into the system with new employees. Company performance influences how people perceive their work, with recent successes affirming organizational value and disappointments fueling anxiety and concern.
Given the inevitability of organizational culture shifting over time, we at CFAR have observed that successful leaders should have a long-term plan for how they hope to shape that cultural growth, rather than letting it happen in ways that they may not be able to predict and may then have to counteract.
We have seen this pattern play out with a physician-led outpatient care provider. The organization had a complicated partner structure that was intended to give all equity holders a strong voice in the company’s direction. As time went on and the company’s strategy aged, the partner agreement came to be hinderance, making even small changes increasingly difficult. Leaders were unable to implement process improvement, update the technology, or explore new partnerships. Because of this, the leadership team was contending with a culture that felt stuck. After extensive negotiations, we were able to work with the partner group to forge a new set of decision-making rights for leadership, creating the possibility for more nimble action. Over time, the organization went from having a “stuck” mindset to one of possibility and growth. As new partners bought into the agreement, the leadership team reported a different attitude to trying new ideas — leading to new affiliations and thus referrals with adjacent health systems.
We observed a similar dynamic in a different client: a professional services firm that was formerly family-owned and was later purchased by a non-family leader within the company, Ryan. Ryan has an ambitious revenue growth target, and CFAR worked with him to define a set of longer-term cultural aspirations for both the top team and company as a whole. Rather than prioritize an explicit set of culture change strategies, Ryan has opted to simply measure where the culture is through an annual survey. We expect that Ryan will be able to observe the culture shifting over time, through communication, big client wins, and a sharp focus on the vision he is articulating for where the culture can go. Ryan’s work is a great example of setting a growth trajectory for culture, and focusing on the levers that can help leaders shape it over time. He is implementing development plans for employees, more regular and interactive communication, and celebrating wins as his core levers. He expects that revenue growth will be both an input to culture shift, as well as an outcome of an activated and engaged organization.
Organic culture change can be a bit like a tree growing: impossible to predict and measure in the short term, but certain and undeniable over the long term. Leaders who sit back and wait for that growth to happen may be pleasantly — or not so pleasantly — surprised by the results. Leaders who are able to harness this growth find ways to shape it so that the culture can support the organization’s long-term goals, creating an organization with strong roots and long branches.
How does your organization shape culture to support your long term goals? Please share with us at email@example.com. If you found this helpful, please share your with your networks.