May Topic: Building a Culture That Embraces Change

In May, we’re exploring what kinds of organizational cultures support an openness to adaptive change.

Image:  Flickr/National Library of Australia.
Edgar Schein describes organizational culture as being like an iceberg. Image: Flickr/National Library of Australia.

This post is the third in a monthly series of investigations into the practices, processes, and behaviors that organizations undertake in order to stay continuously adaptive. Learn more about this series.

This month, we’re continuing with our new editorial direction, in which we’re deeply exploring our 2014 Research Question: How do organizations stay continuously adaptive?

In May, we’re focusing on culture to explore how organizations support openness to adaptive change.

What is organizational culture?

Organizational culture is a big thorny topic. Very simply, it’s the way we do things. Still, it’s difficult to define and even more difficult to change.

We see culture playing out in our everyday behaviors – how we conduct meetings, speak to each other, manage projects, test ideas, spend money, and handle conflict.

It’s born out of the values of the founders and shaped by what brings initial success. But over time, culture gets reinforced by who is hired and fired, how newcomers are trained, organizational structures, and social norms.

Eventually, it becomes an invisible force within our organization that creates patterns on the surface.

Searching for a metaphor

Iceberg Organizational Culture copyEdgar Schein compares organizational culture to an iceberg, with behaviors above the surface, values below, and assumptions in the icy deep. The behaviors are visible, but it’s the values and assumptions that keep the whole thing afloat.

This is helpful for clarifying the different layers, but to me, culture is much more fractured and complex, almost biological.

To me, culture is like DNA – invisible but everywhere, and incredibly difficult to change.

Like the DNA of a species, the culture of an organization develops over time and is shaped by environmental influences, survival of the fittest, unexpected mutations, and sometimes, targeted interventions.

Culture that embraces change

4orgcultureAccording to Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron, there are four types of organizational culture: Clan (family-like), Adhocracy (entrepreneurial), Market (competitive), and Hierarchy (structured and controlled).

Adaptive organizations tend to have a culture that is a mix of clan and adhocracy. These cultures tend to focus on mentoring and nurturing employees (clan), and make risk-taking a priority (adhocracy).

To learn more about your organization’s culture, check out the free online Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument. It will create a graph that describes how strongly your organization’s culture fits into these four categories.

Where does your organization fall? Does the culture you have align with the issues and challenges you’re facing right now?

“It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.” – Jerry Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance

How do you shift culture?

In my experience, culture change usually begins with a behavior change. It starts when a leader deliberately models a new way of doing things, or when an innovative project demands a new way of working.

What doesn’t work is when a committee sits down to decide how a new culture should look and sends around an announcement memo. An organization’s DNA is too deeply ingrained for this kind of top-down change.

How have you seen culture shift in your organization?

Share your experience in the form below

It seems that every other week or so, I read another article about corporate culture and startups. I’m excited to hear from you about how organizational culture can support adaptive work at non-profits.

This month, we’re focusing on one, broader research question: How do you build a culture that embraces change?



Use the form below to share your own experiences with shifting the culture at your organization.


Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.