Old or New, Organizational Culture Must Be Built
Derek & Laura Cabrera
Derek Cabrera (Ph.D., Cornell) is an internationally known systems scientist and serves on the faculty of Cornell University where he teaches systems thinking, systems leadership, and systems mapping and is Program Director for the Graduate Certification Program in Systems Thinking, Modeling, and Leadership (STML). He is a senior scientist at Cabrera Research Lab. Laura Cabrera (B.S., M.P.A, & PhD, Cornell) currently teaches Systems Thinking and Modeling and Systems Leadership at Cornell University at the Institute for Policy Affairs. She is also a senior researcher at the Cabrera Research Lab. Over the past decade, Cabrera has applied her expertise in research methods and translational research to increase public understanding, practical application, and dissemination of sophisticated systems science and systems thinking models.
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All this talk of culture is of course useless if it’s not implemented. Noting how difficult culture is to define and pinpoint for executives, Chris Cancialosi, Partner and Founder of gothamCulture, nonetheless argues:
"Just because I don’t understand astrophysics doesn’t mean it’s not real or that it doesn’t impact my day-to-day life. The difference between astrophysics and culture is that you have the ability to influence your organization’s culture."
Culture can feel amorphous, like a cloud. Hard to pin down or define. And to some extent it is. The scientific term for this is dissipative structure: a structure that is constantly changing while maintaining a recognizable steady state. So, when you see a cloud in the sky, it isn’t a fixed thing. The air molecules are constantly changing, but the cloud-like shape is maintained. A cloud is an area of “cloudiness” and the molecules that make it up are constantly entering and exiting, yet the cloud form maintains itself. Think of your culture this way, too. While you may have employees, customers, and partners coming and going at various times and rates, the culture of the organization somehow persists. Where culture is concerned, this persistence of form is due to the sharing and diffusion of the mental models.
So how do we build culture? What is the process? Well, it’s no small feat. To create an effective organization, we must do the hard work of getting people to share the same mental models. We need to identify what these mental models are, make them crystal clear and simple, and have a way to know whether people understand them. The alternative is that you have a bunch of people who share superficial attributes, such as where they work or what it says on their pay stub. That won’t translate into a commitment to a larger cause, a passion for work, or a consistently positive customer experience.
The process of building culture is, by and large, the same for both new organizations and for organizations seeking culture change, because whether you have new or seasoned employees, a new mental model must be learned and internalized. Nonetheless, there are of course some salient differences when faced with an established culture. First, in a new organization, you will have to contend with a group characterized by different mental models and thus acclimated to different behaviors.
With an established organization, you may face an entrenched culture characterized by a group with shared understanding and allegiance to particular ways of thinking and behaving. This unity of mental models requires a more intense, sustained, and systematic process of culture building. This can be seen in the fact that approximately 70% of all organizational change initiatives fail.19 That said, whether faced with relatively unified or disparate mental models among a team, every leader must build culture by sharing new mental models.