The aphorism “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, while apocryphally attributed to Peter Drucker, is a powerful insight irrespective of who said it first. How many of us have developed great plans only to have our ideas not reach full potential, despite best efforts? We spend considerable time focused on the stuff we can see and think we can control – procedures, technology, staffing – at the peril of giving insufficient attention to the stuff we cannot, or choose not, to see: organizational culture.
Organizational culture is a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs which governs how people behave in organizations. Identifying these invisible forces and then determining which are helpful and which are detrimental are as critical as developing a great program idea or securing funding. Here are some questions we ask of ourselves and the organizations we support to get at the culture issue.
1. What’s the nature of the problem?
Do we need to address a technical issue (e.g., program design, work flow, hiring more staff, sharper grantwriting) or is the problem also ingrained in how we think about the people we serve, how we interact with each other, or how we view the world? The latter set require culture shifts, not technical solutions. It is important to align strategy with the nature of the problem. A food insecurity organization developed a better operational system to distribute food to people across its city, but the plan fell flat because it ignored the cultural norm of community sites expecting to determine their own practices. The community groups were consulted but never embraced the change.
2. What are the organization’s unspoken norms?
Every organization has internal narratives that tacitly inform what it believes about itself and how it behaves. The same cultural norm can be both a strength and a weakness. It is laudable that a child welfare organization always puts the needs of children first, but it can also result in staff burnout and excessive turnover.
3. Is the mission statement clear enough to provide common ground to resolve differences?
Organizational culture has been around since people have been drawing on cave walls, so why worry about it now? The next three years is likely to be a proverbial snowstorm thanks to a federal government that is hostile to the concerns of vulnerable people, the environment, the arts, and civil society. Nonprofits need to be able to generate great ideas and funds to support them, with a solid plan for implementation. The stakes are high, and the margin for error is thin. Organizational culture is a critical ingredient for success.
So, what’s cooking at your organization?
How will you consider culture when developing your next big idea or strategic plan?
We’d love to hear your thoughts…and I’ll buy the breakfast.