Finding Your Organization’s Magic Pixie Dust

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It is often said that organizational culture is like a fog — it is all around us; it impacts our ability to see, to move quickly, and to deliver; but we cannot quite put our finger on it. Indeed, some organizations see their culture as a byproduct of operations, occurring naturally or having an unexplainable magical quality to it — it is their unique “pixie dust.” But as a powerful enabler — or sometimes an obstacle — to organizational operations and transformations, it is important to de-mystify our own organizational culture: what is our distinct culture type and how exactly is it impacting our business? How do we find and define our magical pixie dust?

Culture can be a boon or a bust; it can be that secret ingredient that motivates your employees to do their best work, and/or it can be the underlying cause of organizational reluctance to change and evolve. Thought Ensemble’s CEO Lisa Jasper recently explored this concept in a blog post on Why Purpose-Driven Organizations May Struggle With Change.

You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure

Despite broad agreement around this statement, few companies actually assess, or measure, their culture to understand where it is now, how it benefits them, how it may work against them at times, or how they may want to adjust it. As our clients navigate complex organizational transformations, Thought Ensemble works with them to view their culture as an integral part of the program — we would go as far as saying that no transformation project can be successful in the long-run if the group does not assess and manage the culture shift required to make the transformation stick.

To level-set, and simplify things, culture can be defined as the collection of values, beliefs, behaviors, practices, symbols, legends, heroes, and stories that define your organization. An easy way to start figuring this out is by asking the question, “How do things get done around here?” This should give you a high-level idea of the kind of things that are prioritized and de-prioritized, the way people communicate or collaborate, and the values that ultimately drive decisions.

Culture Assessment Tools to Consider

Cultural assessments are great tools to help distinguish your culture type, and one of my favorite things to do is to gamify serious things as a way of getting started on a daunting task — weird, right? So, I was very pleased to come across a few culture assessment games, including Culture Crush and the Mascot Game, which involve working as a group to ask the questions, “On what organizations do we have a culture crush?” And, “What celebrity would be our organization’s culture mascot?”

As you move beyond the initial ideation phase of your culture assessment, it may be worth looking into more comprehensive assessment tools based on the foundational work by Quinn and Cameron: the Competing Values Framework. One valuable assessment tool is the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI ®), which helps you plot your culture on two scales: people versus task orientation and satisfaction versus security needs. Determining where your organization falls on these scales may help you understand how to best approach a strategy for change.

Another classic tool based on the Competing Values Framework is the Denison Organizational Culture Model. Working along two axes, the model establishes whether your organization is more externally or internally focused: are you prioritizing innovation and sales growth or quality and employee satisfaction? It then asks whether there is a tendency to be flexible or stable: are you more focused on creativity and customer satisfaction or profit and ROI? Looking at twelve criteria on these scales, the model determines which of four “culture profiles” your organizations fits into: Mission Culture, Adaptability Culture, Involvement Culture, or Consistency Culture.

Start the Journey With Strategic Intent

Before selecting an assessment tool or model, however, ask yourself why you want to measure your culture and how you will use the data you uncover. If the intent is to shift, or alter, the culture in order to facilitate a change, it is important to recognize that, by their nature, cultures are pretty resistant to change. Therefore, we must identify the specific aspects that we would like to change and set expectations around desired outcomes and potential consequences. The Godfather of organizational culture studies, Edgar Schein, famously said that culture can be shaped, and not changed, and should only be addressed when one is tackling a problem or making a change to strategy, structure, or process.

Thought Ensemble’s approach to culture change is to primarily assess, or diagnose, the current culture by looking at behaviors that are reinforced and by defining what an ideal future culture might look like; this may even start from an examination of individual behaviors. Typically, our next step is to interpret our findings by asking questions like, “What would it mean to change the current culture?” And, “Where are we seeing examples of our desired culture today?” And finally, by developing plans and critical initiatives to implement your long-term strategy to transform.

To sum up, culture is an integral part of any business transformation. There are several effective ways to assess and measure your culture, and these should be underpinned by your ultimate expectations from the data. In other words, don’t just conduct an assessment, have an idea of what questions you want to answer with the data you’ll uncover. Culture change is not quick or easy, but the benefits of self-awareness and strategic intent for your organization’s culture are plentiful. Finally, although culture may seem like an indistinct organization-level phenomenon, culture change often starts from the individual; we can rise above the fog of culture by observing and feeling our way out, step by step.

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