Every organization lives on two levels: the level of the things we see and the level of the things we don’t. The organizational life we see is made up of all of the things that involve us day to day, including strategy, goods and services, customers, policies, performance management, and much more.
It is the obvious life of the organization and where we invariably look when something needs to change. But there’s another life, the secret life of the organization. It’s where the real action is. It’s the level on which things really happen: personal responsibility, creativity, motivation, organizational learning.
The secret life of the organization is where real and lasting change takes place, but it’s also the part of the organization that’s almost always neglected. And that’s why so many changes fail!
Culture influences everything we do and think within the organization. It extends out to the farthest reaches surmounting geographic and social barriers, and it is amazingly resistant to change. Culture is the social container in which everything in an organization takes place. Ignore it at your own risk!
Why is culture so pervasive and so strong? Well, it’s the job of culture to make sure that nothing in the organization gets so out of balance that it becomes unstable, unpredictable or threatens the survival of the organization. “Better safe than sorry,” is the motto of culture; its core unifying principle is values, and the enforcer is the norms.
It’s also the job of culture to make sure that important survival and success-based knowledge survives and is passed on. A lot of this knowledge has to do with skills, but more importantly and subtly it deals with the transmission of the group’s values and norms, assumptions and beliefs. Thus, we can say that the purpose of culture is to maintain order and the status quo, and to contain and transmit the sum of organizational experience and knowledge to ensure continuity.
When we understand this we can see why change in organizations can be so difficult to bring about: change by its very nature IS discontinuous; even “continuous change” is discontinuous if only in small increments.
Look at an organization. What do you see? Well, you’ll likely see goods and services, employees and customers, sales materials, business strategies and plans. You could see a building, a web site and some other tangible artifacts.
But, try to gaze into the mire we call culture, and the first thing you’ll see is that you can’t see much. But keep looking, and some things will phase into view. You might notice a mission or vision statement written somewhere.
You might observe that people tend to dress in a certain way or that the building has a particular layout or decor. You’ll probably notice there are stated rules, standards, and behavioral norms that people are expected to follow and a set of espoused values in place to guide…well, everything.
If you listen hard you might hear some stories about the deeds and exploits of prominent people in the company that are designed to drive home those rules, standards, norms and values.
One thing you’ll probably notice is that there’s an awful lot of measuring going on: just about anything that can be measured is measured, and all these measured things are used to design strategies and make plans. This is the visible organization. We put our energy here because it’s what we can “see”!