Orrin Woodward LIFE Leadership Team

Winner of the 2011 Independent Association of Business Top Leader Award; Orrin Woodward shares his leadership secrets.

Creating a Winning Culture Current

Posted by Orrin Woodward on December 29, 2010

Systems make up a big part of living. Think of the different types of systems in life, and the careers available for those who study them.  Scientists study the systems available in nature, learning how the world works, developing similar systems to enhance life. Doctors study the systems in the human body, while veterinarians study animal’s body systems.  Engineers study product and process systems, even creating new systems when creating new products.  But, unless one is specifically in these fields, why take the time to learn about systems?  Mainly, because there is another type of system, one that all human beings are apart of from birth, it’s called the cultural system.  Every human being joins the culture of humanity when born, it’s not optional, and every culture – humanity, business organizations, faith organizations, charities, clubs, etc, have a cultural system that guides the behavior of its members.  The McKinsey organization teaches that culture is “how we do things around here”.  Culture matters, and the more one understands the culture of an organization, the better one can improve the culture, thus improving results.  Without an understanding of systems, it will be hard to study, let alone to change, the culture of organizations.  Just as scientist, doctors, veterinarians, and engineers study and create systems, leaders must study, change, and create cultures. In fact, majoring on culture is one of a leaders most important assignments.

Think of culture in an organization, as a riverbed, directing the flow of the river.  The riverbed set the boundaries of acceptable behaviors, controlling the flow of the water, helping new people move within the cultural river.  Riverbed cultures are fantastic systems to guide behaviors when the riverbed aligns with the behaviors needed within a culture, but imagine if the riverbed is guiding behavior in a direction opposed to the behaviors desired and professed by the organization.  This creates a riverbed cultural issue, where the culture is directing behavior that is opposed to the professed norms and values of the community, creating a misalignment between purpose and actions.  For example, suppose an organization desires to be the best company for service and support in the local market.  Advertisements trumpeting this message are shared throughout the marketplace, slogans are placed in the office, and sales meetings share the importance of follow up on existing customers, ensuring that customers are satisfied, focusing on long term business relationships.  This all sounds great, communicating clearly how important serving existing customers are in the company’s culture, but unless the reward system, for the salesforce, lines up with the culture, it will not change behaviors.  In other words, if rewards only pay for new sales, but not existing sales, then why would the salesmen take apply efforts to service an existing customer, when his pay is increased only when he makes a new sale to a new customer.  Can you see where the riverbed is guiding the behavior in one direction, even though the words and slogan are attempting to guide behaviors in another course?   No amount of slogans, meetings, or advertisements are going to change culture, until the leaders change the riverbed which lead to the actions.  

Leaders must study the systematic riverbeds of their respective organizations, determining if the stated beliefs, values, and norms line up with the direction taken by the riverbed.  Leaders can get upset at a communities behavior, punish them, even fire them, but if the riverbed doesn’t align with desired behaviors, the fault isn’t with the people, but with the leadership team responsible for creating the culture and reward systems.  Let’s examine further the organizational cultures.  The reader might be thinking, but I don’t work at a big company, so this doesn’t apply to me.  But remember, cultural systems apply to every organization, everywhere.  Families, churches, clubs, workplaces, businesses, etc, all have cultures.  The sooner one becomes aware of the culture, learning the flow of the water through the riverbed, the quicker one can see if riverbed and behaviors are aligned or if changes are necessary.  Everyone in the community is responsible to help the leaders develop a proper riverbed, because everyone is affected when the riverbed is off course.  One of the best descriptions of the factors that make up the culture (riverbed) of an organization comes from Gerry Johnson, and is called Cultural Webs.  In his article, titled, “Rethinking Incrementalism”, in the 1988 Strategic Management Journal, Johnson defines the paradigm and six elements of the Cultural Web that create the culture of an organization.  One of the goals of a leader is to study the six factors independently and interdependently, learning how each factor can be improved individually, and how they can be improved where they interact with one another.  The leaders objective is to develop the culture by improving how each element ties into the overall message, forming a riverbed that aligns with the deepest beliefs, values, and norms of the organization.

The Paradigm defines what the organization is about, meaning what it does; what’s its mission; what it values. The Cultural Webs are the six factors or elements that combine to fulfill the paradigm.  Here are the six elements with a brief description:

1. Stories – The historical events and people that are talked about inside and outside of the company, creating part of the myths surrounding the company, telling a great deal about what the company’s beliefs, values, and norms are.
2. Rituals and Routines – The daily behaviors that signal actions within the riverbed and those outside of the riverbed.  This creates expectations upon each member of community to behave and act in certain acceptable ways valued by leaders.
3. Symbols – This includes company logos, the layout of offices, power positions at offices and meeting rooms, and formal or informal dress codes.
4. Organizational Structure – This involves the formally defined structures, like organizational charts, and the informally and unwritten power and influence, this is how most leaders get things done, even when structures are broken.
5. Control Systems – This is how the organization is controlled or influenced, including financial systems, quality systems, and rewards.  Rewards communicate what is valued in the company, and are extremely important to align with riverbed.
6. Power Structures – This is where the real power lies in a company, the law of E. F. Hutton – when they speak, people listen. Whether it is one or two key executives, a managing group of executives, or a department, the point is that these leaders have the greatest influence to change operations, strategies, and cultures.

Let’s simplify the idea of culture even further.  Before diving into how to improve each of the factors forming the culture, let’s develop a mental model to simplify how culture is viewed.  Do you remember the game that kids play in the pool, where everyone runs in the same direction, forming a current in the pool, so that the kids can lift their legs and float around the pool, carried by the current they created?  This is an excellent analogy for culture, since the current in the pool performs the same function as the culture does in an organization.  Culture, like the current, is created when people are aligned in beliefs, values, and norms, forming a current that carries people in the proper direction to success.  When people are aligned in a culture, they create a current that helps the new people adopt the cultural norms quickly, flowing with the current in the water.  But, when people aren’t aligned, there is little, if any, current created, forcing people to develop their own beliefs, values, and norms, leaving disunity if not chaos in the pool.  Since there isn’t current (culture) to align the community, the culture becomes a free for all, people showing up, not because they buy into the culture, but only because they buy into paying their bills.  Imagine each organization as a pool when studying the culture.  By studying the stated paradigm for its existence and the six elements that help form the cultural paradigm, one can determine whether the culture current is aligned with the paradigm and elements.  Are the elements creating the proper flow in the pool, or are they confusing, sending mixed messages, hindering the ability of the organization to achieve its stated paradigm?  A leader’s role is to align the elements with the operating paradigm, forming a cultural current that will lead people and the organization to success.

Convergent cultural currents, help explain why two successful cultures, from two successful companies, can combine to create an unsuccessful culture in a struggling company.  Two companies, both successful in their own right, when combined, typically struggle, because the cultural currents fight against one another, creating cognitive dissonance, paralyzing actions and results.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the mental model of the pool current. Combining separate cultures is one of the toughest leadership assignments, and shouldn’t be attempted, without a clear understanding of the cultures involved and the steps involved in aligning the cultures into one fast moving current.  There are many good cultures that do things differently, because there isn’t a clear cut right way to build a culture, but, just as in the pool example, everyone must be running in the same direction to create the cultural flow.  If half the people are running in one direction, the other half in another direction, the company is experiencing a cultural civil war, creating disunity, severely damaging the results produced by the organization.  It takes a leader, with tact, systems thinking, and patience to bring the diverse cultures together, uniting them in a common vision, forming common beliefs, values, and norms, which allows the company to thrive again. The leader creates the culture (riverbed), directing the behaviors, and the culture creates the long term results of the organization. Are you working on the culture in your organizations? God Bless, Orrin Woodward

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