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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Culture is a Symptom of Work (Part 2, Organizational Culture Change)

If you haven’t read the previous part of this series, check it out here. It describes how groups divide their total work into individual tasks, perform those tasks, and recombine the output into the final, shared product.

How does the process of work relate to organizational culture, and why does our discussion of organizational culture start here?

Organizational culture is the human element that enables this process of work to occur. The functional approach tells us that organizational culture is the sum of all of the relationships – interactions over time – within the group. These relationships, practiced until they become habits, are how the group’s members divide, perform, and recombine the work. The functions of leadership transform these practices into individual identity and group community, producing limits on behaviors that seem natural or given. Members don’t question these limits, but rather select from within their constraints as if those boundaries are immutable.

Traditional leadership often describes culture as “behaviors, systems, and practices, all guided by an overarching set of values” (from HBR here, or similar sets in many other places). But, as illustrated in that article, these traditional approaches never recognize the obvious: these interpersonal patterns are the way that work is divided, performed, and recombined. The patterns arise for very specific reasons, and they are maintained because they allow work to be performed. To do something new and different would be frightening, with potentially negative consequences, on both an organizational and a personal level. This is the negative side of the function of learning, the discomfort of change.

But we want to change culture because we believe that we can create a more productive, positive workplace when we do. How do we overcome this resistance to change?

Culture is Built Upon The Division, Performance, and Recombination of Work

Put simply: the behaviors, systems, practices, and values of organizational culture are consequences, not causes, of the performance of work. They are symptoms of what people have to do.

So, if we want to change these cultural elements, we have to focus on the work that produced them. We start with relationships because this function is where the work gets done. We first act upon the behaviors that pass elements back and forth, and behaviors that create emotion reactions. Before we can introduce new behaviors, we have to shift the limits of what members can select.

Over time, changing the ways that members interact in the performance of work will change the group’s productive results – the excellence of the shared output – and it will also change the experiences of the members of the group. This reframing shifts the limits on which behaviors members can select, a moment that allows us to introduce new behaviors.

This is similar to Kurt Lewin's model, which describes culture change as unfreeze, change, and refreeze.

And that’s a big point: don’t start with vision. Yes, vision must be aligned, but changing vision without changing the relationships that are built upon the existing vision will not work. Only when we begin our change effort with relationships – the patterns of behavior – can we change the stories that explain these patterns. This order avoids our natural tendency to tell a different story, which is easy, without changing actual behaviors, which is hard. When we do not follow this order, we often create change efforts that appear as lip service because the underlying cause has not been addressed.

When we start an organizational change effort, we need a clear goal. Culture is both created by the process of dividing, performing, and combining, which creates limits to the cultural change effort. But culture also creates this process work – it is literally how work is performed – and therefore established patterns limit the change we can introduce in the process of work.

We have to break this circle at the point of behavior, and to do that we begin by seeing the process of work.

Seeing the Process of Work

Culture is a symptom of the process of work. Our goal is to look underneath cultural interactions to see the work that they facilitate, and the explanation for why the group created these relationships.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What aspect of the group’s process of work is affected by the cultural elements we want to change?

  • Why does the group need these cultural elements to perform the work?

  • How do these cultural elements enable group members to contribute to the shared outcome?

These questions allow us to identify and create a change within the immediate behaviors, interactions, and then relationships that make up the process of work.

  • What existing relationships do we want to change?

  • What improvements do we want to make?

  • What is the replacement for this aspect of the performance of work?

Once we understand what would be different in the work to produce a different set of cultural elements, we can evaluate the consequences on work. Our change effort will act upon the performance of work, so we will need to explain it not in terms of culture but in terms of tasks.

  • Why do these relationships limit the quality of work?

  • How will these improvements affect the performance of work and therefore the group's final output?

From this understanding, we can begin to build a plan for both the new relationships and a supporting explanation for why these new behaviors are better.

These changes do not have to be, and often are overwhelming not, focused on individual tasks. Human beings need a supportive, positive work environment – including interpersonal relationships – to be productive, so interactions that create negative feelings should be changed. These are part of the definition of leadership in the form of emotion relationships.

A Goal and Reason are the Beginning of a Plan

Only when we answer these questions can be we begin to make a plan

for the change. This is where the normal tactical approaches to organizational culture change begin to be useful to us. First, we have to know where we are and where we want to go. We have to do so with the context of the division of tasks. Otherwise, we are simply expressing our preference or distaste for certain abstract concepts.

Here are some great resources on tactics:

As you look at these resources, find where they connect to dividing, performing, and combining work and how the three functions enable groups to work together on a shared goal. When you examine your own organization’s challenges using the questions above, you will find these same connections are the answer to what cultural elements should change and why. These are the hidden answers to the question, "why did these behavioral patterns form?" that are found in a functional approach to leadership that explains the process of work.

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