Culture Shift, Values and Vision

Article by Jamie Cleaver

If only cultural change were as easy as setting fire to a line of matches

WELCOME to this regular slot that focuses on professional skills for chemical engineers. Last month we looked at the attributes of a creative workplace culture, and decided that we need more divergent thinking to go along with our well-established convergent thinking. This month we continue the theme with a look at how we might encourage culture shift in our organisations.

Make no bones about it, bringing about a culture change is difficult. It doesn’t matter how much authority you have in the organisation. It has been likened to repairing the engine of a moving vehicle. How can it be so hard? According to Torben Rick – someone who has thought a lot about this – the culture of an organisation:

  • comprises an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions; and
  • reflects its deepest values and beliefs. Trying to change it can call into question everything the organisation holds dear, often without that conscious intention.

No tweaking

First, culture change cannot be prescriptive or predictive. We cannot tweak the culture knob to dial in the adjustment we require. Organisational culture is an output determined from the interplay between a complex set of variables. Secondly, focusing on culture is really missing the issue. Building on Rick’s second point, the real issue is the values held by the individuals, and how those values align with the vision of the organisation.

Values are beliefs or ideals held by individuals, or shared by individuals. A strong culture prevails when the shared values align with the organisational vision. If the vision of the organisation shifts, for example in an attempt to become more innovative, then the values of the individuals have to be re-aligned towards the new vision. This is a non-trivial undertaking. Here are some ideas that I’ve gleaned from some specialists in the area.  I present these in the hope that you find something of interest. First, let’s look at what Steve Denning says about aligning values and vision:

  • have a clear vision and communicate it effectively;
  • identify main stakeholders of your vision and tune your organisation to respond to them;
  • define managers' roles as enablers of self-organising teams to release potential;
  • develop systems and processes that support the new vision;
  • introduce transparency and continuous improvement;
  • encourage horizontal communication;
  • don’t start by re-organising; and
  • don’t bring in a new management team.

Secondly, these are the thoughts of Tim Kuppler:

  • culture is built through shared learning and mutual experience;
  • don’t focus on trying to change culture. Focus on better ways of doing things;
  • results of change support the change;
  • get a feel for the unwritten rules of cultural behaviour;
  • define a “from–to” shift in behaviour;
  • engage groups in reviewing behaviour shifts;
  • adjust management, communication and motivation systems to support change; and
  • culture change starts with personal change.


Seeing clearly

So where have we got to? Culture change is possible, but that’s not the real problem. The real problem is in clarifying the organisational vision, and articulating it clearly so that individuals and groups can re-align themselves to it. That leaves us with a vital question; do you know the vision of your organisation, and, if so, are you aligned to it?

Article by Jamie Cleaver

Freelance trainer and facilitator, IChemE course leader on Mentoring for Chemical Engineers

Jamie Cleaver is a chemical engineer who works as a freelance trainer and facilitator, helping engineers and scientists to develop professional skills related to communication. He runs workshops on various aspects of communication, creativity and mentoring for companies and universities. He also specialises in explaining chemical engineering to non-chemical engineers. In his spare time, he lectures chemical engineering to undergraduates.

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