The Foundation of Culture is Work (Part 1, Organizational Culture Change)

Approaches to organizational culture change often focus on the process. These are the tactics we have all seen: include diverse voices, communicate the change and reasons widely, get an executive champion, focus on values, build change over time. But there’s a problem. These tactics are how we change culture, not what we change. They don’t answer the question that begins any activity: what do we want to accomplish?

But there’s one additional, and more significant challenge in organizational culture change efforts: the answer to why. We often lack the underlying reasons for the goal, the answer to, “Why does this need to be changed?”

In most activities, this answer is closely linked to the goal itself: we start a business to make money, we improve our goaltending skills so our rec soccer team can win, we go to the gym so that we don’t have a heart attack. The link between what and why is obvious, and therefore we can build a plan that accomplishes the goal as measured by an outcome.

In organizational culture change efforts, we often begin the change because we think that a different way of doing business will produce better results. This answer sounds good on the first examination, but when we dig deeper, we find less substance. Many culture change efforts are simply a judgment that a certain pattern of behavior is “bad.” This judgment may be that certain behaviors are unsightly, unprofessional, or exclusionary. Alternatively, the judgment may be that the organization needs a set of positive, modern, inclusive values.

Traditional approaches to leadership describe culture as somehow separate from work, as an overlay of beliefs or values, social norms, and practices or rituals. It is as if culture is an amorphous blob that sprawls over actual work, and we can simply poke it into the shape we desire. This doesn’t work, and we see this in change efforts that fail to create lasting change. We can’t just change culture because we do not like it, without an answer to the question, “why?”. This is the cause of so many culture change efforts that begin with well-meaning improvements in how people feel and end up wasting time and effort with few results.

Fortunately, the functional approach to leadership shows us culture’s relation to work, identifies its impact on excellence, and creates a plan for improvements. Understanding the group’s needs also allows us to see that organizational culture takes shape for a reason, through a process of building relationships. But this is a subject for later in this series.

So how do we get an answer to our “why” for organizational culture change? We flip the culture paradigm upside down and start with what it means to perform work.

A Group is a Process of Dividing, Performing, and Recombining Work

Groups need multiple people to complete a large output, and therefore they have to divide the large shared output into separate tasks, allow individual members to complete those tasks, and then recombine the tasks into the final product. This process is true of all groups, all industries, and all products. This process is essential to working with other people. In the functional approach, this is called "the process of work".

There are several ways that this process can fail, and the result is obvious in the group’s activities. These challenges can, at times, look like failures in culture, but they are actually failures in this fundamental aspect of working with other human beings.

When we break projects apart into individual tasks, we have to identify who will do which parts, and how those parts will be completed. When a group fails to do this, the result is confusion, misdirection, and a lack of focus. The solution is clearly communicated roles and responsibilities that align with the work to be performed. When members understand what they need to do, then they can move forward with clarity. This clarity is difficult in many companies, particularly those who are developing new ways to perform work, so leadership is responsible for greater focus on this clarity up-front. The function of vision contributes a clear line between individual tasks and the meaningful change, as well as a standard of excellence to this division of tasks.

On the other side is recombining individual tasks into a final product. When individual tasks are performed in a way that isn’t exactly what the group needs, then the individual outputs fail to fit together into a single combined output. We observe disagreement, improperly completed work, and a low-quality final product. Members had tasks to perform, they just didn’t know what they were supposed to produce. The solution is to identify clear measures of both quality and connection between outputs. When a member understands what the other members require from his or her output, then they can perform their tasks properly. Leadership is responsible for ensuring that the group (not necessarily leaders alone!) establishes the characteristics of individual tasks that allow them to fit together with other tasks. Again, vision allows members to see how tasks should be recombined in a way that creates excellence.

Finally, issues can occur during the performance of individual tasks. These occur because members lack the “things” they need to complete their tasks. This can be a simple resource or ingredient, but often they lack something more complex: information, decisions, knowledge, incentives. These are, of course, the interchange elements. When members do not generate a necessary element within their work, they depend on other members of the group to provide these things. The solution is to identify what elements are required, either in general or at the moment of struggle, and develop a plan to perform the interchange. Leadership is responsible for overseeing this process to ensure that the relationship’s structure meets the group’s needs. The performance of work requires the function of relationships transferring elements and creating positive feelings, and the function of learning to allow exploration in the performance of work that leads to improvements and accomplishment of unrealized excellence.

Again, all organizations perform this process division, performance, and recombination of work. It does not have to happen a single time, nor does it have to be visible. A specific organization’s process may not be as linear as an assembly line, but it still follows the cycle of division, performance, and recombination. The process of work may also take place in smaller sub-groups within the organization, such as for individual components within a larger whole. Many organizations have already performed the “breaking up” when they created positions. Many activities in the workplace – and a great deal of often unnecessary work or ineffective interpersonal action – relate to this division of the whole among individuals.

Here are the high-level questions you need to ask as you consider an organizational culture change:

  • What is the final output – the goal – of this group’s work?

  • What characteristics must the final product have to be excellent?

  • How will the final output be divided into smaller tasks, and who will perform each task?

  • What characteristics must each member’s individual components have to fit together into that excellent final product?

  • What necessary “things” exist in members other than the one performing the task? How will these things be transferred to the responsible member?

Seeing the process of work within the activities of the group allows us to identify inefficiencies and problematic root causes. This, in turn, enables us to find solutions. If you see an issue within the answers to these questions, then it needs to be addressed now, as part of this process. If these questions are answered effectively in your group, then we can move on to culture. That is the subject of the next part of this series, so check back soon. If you aren’t already a subscriber, join our weekly Substack newsletter for all the latest in leadership development ideas from a functional perspective!

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