Strategy, Structure, and Culture: Aligning our Organizational Systems

By David Brubaker, PhD | June 13th, 20112 comments

Photo by Matt Westervelt via Flickr

I’ve consulted with over 100 organizations in the last 25 years, but in the last five years I’ve noted a distinct trend. Organizational leaders used to contact me with a vague request for mediation or consulting services because “we have a conflict and we need help to resolve it.” In recent years, however, leaders have been much more likely to specifically request strategic planning or structure review processes—and often both together. I’ve experienced this shift as an encouraging move towards proactive rather than reactive intervention processes in organizations.

I also attribute this shift to growing awareness among organizational leaders of the importance of aligning structure with strategy. Organizational leaders today are keenly aware of the importance of developing a shared vision and values to enable diverse organizational members to work together for a common purpose. And most leaders also know that the decision-making structures that might have served the organization well for years need to be reviewed and often revised. In the turbulent environment within which all organizations now must operate, more organic and flexible structures are becoming an urgent priority.

But while I am increasingly asked to lead “strategic planning” and “structure review” processes, I have only once been asked to conduct a “culture review” for a client. Strategy is about vision and structure is about authority, so both are critically important. But culture is about meaning, and meaning will trump both vision and authority over time. As Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Why don’t organizations typically undertake culture audits? For one thing, it’s very hard to do. Most of culture is at the level of assumptions, beliefs, values and norms—and thus is tacit and invisible or at least informal. We may hesitate to initiate a study of our culture as we honestly don’t know how to do so. But I’ve also come to believe that organizational leaders intuitively know that an organization’s culture is stronger than even its top leaders. When a new leader eager to “make big changes” encounters an entrenched organizational culture the culture almost always wins. This is why many lead pastors, school superintendents, and even U.S. presidents don’t last more than three or four years in their roles. So how do we change an entrenched organizational culture, at least when that culture is preventing the organization from fully achieving its mission and vision?

In our Little Book of Healthy Organizations, Ruth Zimmerman and I offer five suggestions for successful cultural change. They are as follows:

  1. Learn the culture.
  2. Name the strengths and weaknesses of the culture.
  3. Build a coalition of organizational members committed to cultural change.
  4. Work at cultural change incrementally rather than instantaneously.
  5. Become the change you wish to see (especially important for leaders).

An organization’s culture (often comprised of numerous subcultures as well) determines the organization’s behavior more than the organization’s strategy or structure. Yet it is the one element of organizational life that we are least likely to study, name, or work deliberately to change. Let’s celebrate what’s right about our organizational cultures, but let’s not hesitate to also name the weaknesses of our cultures and work cooperatively to change them.

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[David Brubaker, PhD, is Associate Professor of Organizational Studies and Practicum Director at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. David's expertise is helping facilitate organizations through healthy review and change processes.]

2 Responses to "Strategy, Structure, and Culture: Aligning our Organizational Systems"

  1. Hi Dave:
    I think the best thing we can do is become a “reflective learning organization” by applying some of the principles we use in peacebuilding to our own organizations. I like the way Reina Neufeldt, John Paul Lederach, and Hal Culbertson talk about demystifying theory and remystifying practice in their manual. Becoming culturally “self-aware” by asking: “Why do we do what we do the way we do it?” … I mean REALLY asking it carefully is a step toward double loop learning and triple loop learning as a way to question culture-in-practice. I like this video (not the music, but the ideas) and I think triple-loop learning as they describe it is about cultural self-awareness and cultural change. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nn3NqvStekY

    Jayne