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When I Hear the Word Culture I Reach for My Gun

by Shain David
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When I Hear the Word Culture I Reach for My Gun

The work on organizational culture is in its infancy compared to other areas of focus for improving organizations.

I completed a quick search of various organizational improvement areas on Google and LinkedIn. I completed a standard search on Google and a LinkedIn “Groups” search for the following organizational improvement areas of focus: strategic planning, performance management, leadership development, talent management, organizational change, employee engagement and organizational culture. Organizational culture finished at the bottom of the list by a wide margin with a return of 3.3 Million results on Google and 52 groups on LinkedIn. Strategic Planning returned over 35 Million results on Google and nearly 500 groups on LinkedIn. Culture definitely isn’t eating strategy for lunch on that result and it wasn’t just strategic planning. The next closest improvement area to organizational culture in Google search results had over 50% more results. The next closest improvement area to organizational culture on LinkedIn groups had over 100% more groups.

I realize it’s not a scientific approach but it does indicate a potential under-appreciation or interest in organizational culture… or… maybe it’s the opposite? Maybe everyone knows it’s important but it’s far more difficult to clearly define how to improve a culture. It may not be as bad as a quote a colleague once shared, “when I hear the word culture I reach for my gun,” but it’s not a discipline that’s consistently understood.

It’s unfortunate considering the impact of an effective organizational culture.

I believe the impact dwarfs these other improvement disciplines since all of them have aspects that are dependent on the organizational culture:

  • Strategic planning is pointless without leveraging the strengths of the culture and the strategy will not be effectively implemented without a clear and aligned culture.
  • Performance management is important but it’s brought to an entirely new level of effectiveness when integrated with efforts to support an effective culture.
  • Leadership development can’t be managed effectively in isolation without addressing the flip side of the coin, culture. It’s also taken to a much deeper level if the culture context, the current status and desired culture, is understood.
  • Talent management is obviously an important aspect of the organizational culture and heavily influences efforts to develop the culture. Unfortunately, major talent management improvements will not take hold and have the desired impact without an effective culture.
  • Many organizational change efforts can be more effectively managed if the approach is customized based on an understanding of the culture.
  • Employee engagement is a key part of an organizational culture but only covers some of the main aspects of an effective culture.
  • All of these areas of improvement need anchored in the culture in some way to support sustainable performance improvement.


There will be a revolution in the appreciation of culture on many fronts over coming years:

  • Culture surveys will continue to be conducted but the emphasis will shift from periodic surveys to ongoing analysis of data captured from internal social networks and other technology.
  • This ongoing data analysis from social networks and technology will be directly connected to additional feedback and prioritization efforts. Organizations will not only know the current status of their culture but the top changes necessary to move the culture in the right direction in the collective eyes of their workforce.
  • The analysis of cultures will expand to include a much deeper understanding and improvement of the operating drivers of the culture. It’s not just about shifting a few key behaviors. It’s about managing that journey while aligning key operating drivers like the vision, values, strategic priorities, goals, measures, motivation systems, communication systems, core processes, talent development and much more. These operating drivers are reinforcing the current culture and are the keys to moving a culture in a new direction over time.
  • Foundation processes for effectively improving a culture will emerge with the broad understanding and exposure of other major improvement approaches we see in strategic planning, change management, talent management and other areas.
  • These base foundation processes for culture improvement will be customized for use in various industries, organizational types and geographies where the broader cultural context will also be defined and understood. Culture improvement efforts to this point have been primarily focused on generic improvements and best practices applied to individual organizations even though customization based on the broader environment is clearly possible.
  • The work on culture will “impact” society through the work of many types of organizations, especially in healthcare, education, non-profits and faith-based organizations as foundation processes and industry-specific best practices are more deeply understood.
  • Organizations that have a vested interest in improving many other organizations (foundations, consulting companies, venture capital firms, etc.) will leverage work on culture to maximize the potential of the organizations they support.
  • Culture consulting work will explode as a base discipline but also to support change efforts in many other disciplines. Just put the word “culture” after lean, wellness, safety, quality, learning, innovation or any other improvement discipline that needs embedded in the organizational culture to be sustainable. The broader culture of the organization impacts most specific improvement disciplines.

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