Most of us love movies and TV shows because it allows us to look in on characters and situations to see how things play out. Recently there has been fascinating news coverage and social media chatter about the unexpected ending to Game of Thrones. Many people are outraged at the treatment of their favorite characters. In a similar time frame, the long running TV sitcom Big Bang Theory also completed its story. While there was not as much angst and upset as with Game of Thrones, there still were plenty of points of view on how it should have ended.
This recent news got me thinking how Hollywood writers would develop a script about executives involved in changing organizational culture. What would the story line be and who would be the main characters? How might this story play out?
If we assume the screen writers looked on the internet for guidance and used the prevailing mindset about changing organizational culture, then we could expect a hero or two who were inspiring. This inspiration would be geared toward helping groups of people find new values, which in turn changed the values in the organization.
- Given that, what movies come to mind which are inspiring?
- What would be your list of top 10?
- Would you include any of the following?
- If asked to name movies which depict how you think about changing a culture, which movies would you pick?
- Would you think of movies which you found inspiring?
- Forrest Gump
- The Shawshank Redemption
- The Pursuit of Happiness
- The Blind Side
- 3 Idiots
- Remember the Titans
- 127 Hours
- It’s a Wonderful Life
This list is from a blog entitled Top Ten Most Inspirational Movies of All Time. We think that changing organizational culture should look heroic and inspiring. In most movies, we can see who or what the obstacle is and what is needed to overcome. With that insight we can imagine how the story should play out.
Misunderstandings About Organizational Culture
At this point in time there is little doubt that the quality of an organizational culture has profound impact on the performance of an organization. Given the magnitude of the impact of culture on performance, one would think that those of us in business would be very knowledgeable about what culture is and how to improve it. Nothing could be further from the case. Most of us have an incomplete and superficial view of what constitutes organizational culture and how culture can be changed. The “prevailing wisdom” is that culture is the values and principles of an organization. We assume that what is needed to change culture is to articulate some lofty and inspiring principles and values. Culture change will be based on inspiration and look like the first list of films. We assume that if we articulate inspiring principles and values that surely people in the organization will adopt them and the culture will change. Oh, were it that easy.
While values and principles are an important element in culture there is much more to the story. Culture is comprised of:
- Artifacts of behavior, processes and structures. These are the things that are visible to people in the organization. Most employees see these artifacts as indicating what the “real culture is”.
- Values and principles. Unfortunately, in many organizations the artifacts which people can feel and see are disconnected from the values and principles.
- Tacit assumptions. These assumptions are developed over time through shared learning by groups of people in the organizations. These tacit assumptions are passed on to new employees joining the company as how to fit in and succeed in this organization. In most organizations these tacit assumptions are so taken for granted as to be invisible to most people in the organization yet form the context for the organization.
Changing or improving organizational culture requires digging in to understand this third level of tacit assumptions. It is tedious and tense work … which I think Hollywood would depict in very different ways if the screenwriters actually understood what’s required to change culture. That’s why I have a different list of movies that I think best describe organizational culture change.
- The Abyss
- Lethal Weapon 3
- Blown Away
- Fight Club
- The Shadow
- Die Hard with A Vengeance
- The Rock
When you look at that list, what comes to mind? If I told you those were the Top Ten movies on a list, what do you think is the criteria for being on that list?
This list is from a blog entitled, Top 10 Wire-Cutting Bomb Moments in Film. You are likely thinking of wire cutting to defuse a bomb as a curious choice to depict what changing organizational culture looks like. Yet it is, so read on.
Think about watching movies when a bomb squad specialist in working to defuse a bomb. What did you see? Painstaking actions to understand how the bomb was built as well as how it can be deconstructed. Each move is calculated based on understanding the unique attributes of the bomb rather than assuming that all bombs are made the same. The actions are calculated and focused to take each step, which will lead to the next step. Hurry and shortcuts are not a formula for success in deconstructing bombs… nor is a good formula for deconstructing cultures in order to see a path to making changes in the culture.
The similarities of wire-cutting bomb movies and organizational culture is this: we have a vague understanding of how either works. The difference is we know that we know very little about defusing bombs, while most of us think we know much more about how organizational culture works than we actually do.
Organizational culture is the shared learning by groups of people in the organization. This shared learning involves what produces success and survival of the organization. As an organization matures these “shared learnings” are passed on to new people who join the organization. At some point these shared learnings become so imbedded in the organization that it “disappears” into the background and can no longer be seen by those in the organization. While it is “invisible” to members of the organization, this imbedded share learning has significant impact on how things are perceived and acted on.
Organizational cultures are much more complex that we realize. In fact, cultures are so complex that is hard to comprehend how the culture developed over time or how the culture shapes behaviors and performance of the organization. Edgar Schein is the preeminent authority on organizational culture. He has consulted with and studied cultures for over fifty years. He has also written the definitive text on organizational cultures and leadership. Schein says that cultures are so complex and large that it is impossible to comprehend and study. He uses an analogy of human personality. He says imagine that you have decided that you want to change all of your personality. How would that work? It would not. Personality is too well established to be amenable to wholesale changes. Schein says that the best you can do is identify an aspect of your personality which is causing problems, e.g., over eating or too much drinking. It is possible to work on that specific problem related to one’s personality … albeit a huge challenge.
The Great Irony
Think how ironic it is that we know so little about the culture of organization. How is that possible given we have had a lifetime of experience in organizations with distinct and unique cultures and yet work with a superficial understanding?
We all have grown up in complex organizations with clear cultures, called schools. We started in elementary school which had a distinct culture. We then moved on to middle school and then high school. Then many of us went on to universities, which also have clear cultures which are quite unique from high school. After our university experiences we took our first job with a company, whose organizational culture was probably very unique from our educational experiences. Many of us have had several to many different jobs in different organizations. Each time we enter a new organization we sense the uniqueness of the cultures, and our capacity to see this uniqueness fades as we come to feel at home in this organization.
With all this experience in entering and adapting to unique cultures, it would seem like we would be experts at understanding how cultures work. Yet we are not. That is because the nature of cultures is so pervasive that it is very hard to see except when first entering the organization. After a relatively short time we become part of the culture and can no longer see the particular distinctiveness of our new organization. We come to function within the culture without being able to see it per se. This is because a primary role of culture is to show new people to the organization how to fit in and behave in the organization.
Organizational culture has a significant impact on organizational culture performance, yet most of us in organizations have an incomplete understanding of what constitutes culture. If we are to improve organizational performance by changing the organization’s culture, we will need to look past the superficial concept that simply changing the values will change the culture. The best approach is to carefully understand how the specific culture you are dealing with developed over time and then identify specific problems which can serve as the “wires to cut” in defusing the complexity that every culture has.