“A small group of dedicated people can do amazing things,” Prof. Lynda Aiman-Smith told the CIMS Sponsors meeting last October. Prof. Aiman-Smith has been observing, researching and participating in organizational culture change for almost 30 years, 13 in various high-tech industry management roles and then as associate professor of management, innovation and entrepreneurship in NC State’s Poole College of Management. During that time she has heard a great deal about obstacles to effecting change in an innovation culture, but most of those, she asserts, turn out to be myths—like the ones she highlights here:
Myth: Organizational culture is too squishy, fuzzy and feely. Culture is intangible, vague and impossible to figure out—much less manage.
Truth: Culture is embedded in behavioral practices. It can be assessed with both quantitative and qualitative metrics. Hence, it can be described, explained, predicted, and managed.
Myth: Organizational culture is too complex. No one understands how organizational culture works. And no one knows if or how it relates to business results.
Truth: Over 40 years of research, done by different scholars, with numerous companies, shows us how culture works. There is a definite link between organizational culture and innovation, company growth, public reputation, market share, and employee engagement.
Myth: Organizational culture is really just a reflection of the founder/leader’s personality.
Truth: It is true that the founders and leaders of organizations are the primal points of the culture, and they continue to have an effect. But research I have conducted with my long-time collaborator April R. Cantwell, Ph.D, from NC State’s Department of Psychology, shows that there are other powerful levers for organizational change. A group of people with influence—a subculture— can definitely change an organization’s culture.
Myth: Culture is an academic exercise. People in organizations might think about it, but only as an intellectual exercise, and only if they have the time and money to engage in such exercises.
Truth: Cultural issues have strategic and practical impact. Focusing on developing the competencies and practices that can affect the culture is a prudent use of your time and money.
Myth: Changing organizational culture can only start at the top with the executives. Consequently, the CEO is the one who has to lead the charge.
Truth: Subcultures can change the culture. Inside groups of influential professionals, who speak the same language and are looking to target and develop competencies and practices that support results, can move the culture.
Myth: Organizational cultural change is a painful, confusing and slow process.
Truth: Professionals who like the challenge of making a difference, who are armed with the capabilities to assess culture and who have the competencies to adopt different work practices, can change a culture—and change it quickly. Organizational culture change is exciting, fun and rewarding.
Changing a Culture
Several years ago, April Cantwell and I were doing research on the organizational culture of one high- tech company. In the course of our interviews and focus groups I was invited to sit in on an informal brown bag lunch that half a dozen people from different parts of the company held every few weeks.
These folks were clearly unhappy with the lackadaisical approach the company took to making decisions about initiating projects. It seemed to them—and this was our observation as well—that projects were launched mainly because someone found money in the budget or some big pooh bah thought it was a good idea. There were not a lot of analytics around the decision process.
So this group—who were by no means appointed to the task—took it on themselves to use what they had learned from working in other organizations to create a decision- making model that would work in this company. They worked hard and came up with a framework for making decisions. Then they began using it in their own areas of responsibility
Gradually, over the two years we were there, that framework began appearing in presentations made at executive levels in the company’s major division. Even the division VP began including it in his slides.
Great to Watch
In this way, the culture shifted away from decision making according to “which big dog has money” to a rational analytical process. This was a homegrown cultural influence that changed the organization’s culture. It was a great experience for me to watch.
Management, Innovation & Entrepreneurship
NC State University, Raleigh, NC