Several years ago I was planning a workshop on transforming organizational cultures and wanted to give the workshop the title: Transforming your Organization’s DNA. One of my colleagues challenged this title suggesting that it was presumptuous. “DNA is what it is,” she said. “You cannot transform it. At best, you can transform its impact.” I accepted my colleague’s council and the name of the workshop was changed. I’ll confess, however, that to this day I have felt unresolved with this conversation. Is it true that an organization’s DNA cannot change? If so, does this mean that in the absence of the ability to change our core organizational culture, if an assumption associated with this culture is false our organizations must become relics or die? Or, was my colleague correct in suggesting that while organizational essence (DNA) is stable, we must work at transforming the experience or impact of this essence to stay relevant for the 21st Century?
These last days I have been reading the excellent book by Edgar H. Schein Organizational Culture and Leadership. Schein states repeatedly that transforming an organization’s culture is really, really hard work. Moreover, Schein is clear that what may appear to be a cultural assumption in need of transforming may in fact be a critical element of how an organization not only functions but how it achieves success. Schein also offers that sometimes an organization’s DNA must in fact be transformed. Perhaps the cultural assumptions that once made the organization successful do not work so well in a new social or economic environment. Or perhaps the organization’s DNA had dangerous mutations in it right from the beginning that threaten the success or the very life of the organization.
I have had the privilege of being invited into many organizations over these past 20 plus years – many of whom have asked specifically for assistance in regards to transforming some part of their organization’s culture or DNA. Not infrequently, I have heard about painful and damaging conflict that was at the very essence of how a group began. Just as often, leaders observe conflict developing as organizations seek to modify key cultural assumptions regarding how or why they exist. Or, organizations sense their relevance slipping but are at a loss to navigate effectively the organizational changes required to regain their erstwhile success.
In medicine we have learned these last years that certain experiences (diet, stress, etc) can turn genes on or off, essentially modifying an individual’s DNA or at the very least how that DNA is experienced by the individual carrying it. The suggestion is that we can do quite a lot to modify how the very building blocks of who we are, are expressed in our bodies. The same holds true in organizational life.
What are the experiences that turn the genes of our organizations on or off? Stress, crisis, rapid growth or decline, changes in the culture of the people we are hiring or serving, competition… all of these are somewhat happenstance experiences (in other words, mostly beyond our control) that contribute heavily both to change in our organizational cultures or more likely, to the need for change in our organizational cultures. Leadership in this context is about navigating these changes and managing the cultural shifts required to thrive in this context of change. This is not for the faint of heart! The answers are not easy; nor are the consequences of the changes we make always foreseen. Transforming an organization’s culture is a little like driving a car – we make many corrections in our steering along the way with the hope that the road we are driving on will lead to the destination we are seeking. We can follow road maps, seek the counsel of fellow travelers on the road, read signposts, ask for the advice of our passengers and we can keep our hands on the steering wheel, remembering that the decisions we are making have a tremendous impact not only on the success of our organization but as importantly, on the people we lead and serve.