Unsure what to write about, I decided to play Newsletter Tarot this week. I have a deck of notecards and on each one is a lesson learned, an idea, or a story. Someday I might figure out a way to string them together into a book, but for now they sit in my desk drawer. Twice now, I’ve pulled them from the back of that drawer, shuffled them as if they were a deck of cards and pulled one out with the idea that this would be my topic for the week. Today’s card has two ideas – technically – though they are clearly related.
“Pay attention to organizational culture.
Strategic planning as a way to impact (culture).”
Right after I pulled that card, I had a call with a coaching client and, you guessed it, we spent much of our time talking about the interplay between a new policy and the organizational culture. You might also guess that this organization is experiencing what Peter Drucker meant when he coined the phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Margaret J. Wheatley describes culture this way, “I can’t think of any organization that isn’t deeply patterned with self-similar behaviors evident everywhere. I’m often struck by eerily similar behaviors exhibited by people in an organization, whether I’m meeting with a factory floor employee or a senior executive. I might detect a recurring penchant for secrecy, or for openness, for name-calling, or for thoughtfulness. These recurring patterns of behavior are what many call the culture of an organization.” (Emphases mine.)
“Deeply patterned with self-similar behaviors” is a phrase that resonates with me. It reaches back to a quote I like that turns out not to be from Aristotle (see Quote of the Week) “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” If we want our organizations to be open and collaborative we have to practice openness and collaboration – everyone of us, repeatedly – about all sorts of things that are often uncomfortable to talk about and difficult to collaborate on. If we say we want our organization to be one that values diversity in opinions, experiences, and backgrounds, we have to act in ways that actually create space for difference and disagreement. And the list goes on, doesn’t it?
Our patterns, our practices, our habits, all make up the cultures of our organizations – and it’s true everywhere, but especially in complex organizations like higher education, there are multiple cultures within and throughout organizations. Truly effective strategic planning, significant policy change, or organizational redesign must take into account the norms and cultures of the organization. When we don’t do that, we find ourselves facing one more strategic plan that “just sits on the shelf”, one more new policy that causes problems rather than fixing them, and one more “reorg” that creates nothing but turmoil. Understanding our organizational culture isn’t the only ingredient for success, but a misunderstood culture can “eat us for lunch.”
If you’re running into difficulties which a change effort, it might be worth the time to take a step back and see where you are running afoul of an organizational culture. Or these days, maybe what you are experiencing is a culture that is changing around you as everyone copes with the effects of a global pandemic and changed perspectives about the ways we work together. Whatever version of resistance, challenge or difficulty you are experiencing right now, it’s worth checking in with the culture and seeing just what’s on your breakfast menu.
PS – No, I didn’t write about the second part of my notecard – strategic planning as a culture driver. I do believe in that, but we’ll save that for another time. GP