An example of this is the recent Harvard Business Review commentary Five Tough Questions Every Entrepreneur Must Ask About Growth by HBS Professor and noted author Rosabeth Moss Kanter. In a list that includes “Finances,” “Partners and Allies,” and “Outcomes,” she argues that making use of your “Organizational Culture” is every bit as important to success. Kanter writes
Are you making explicit what the organization stands for in tangible ways that can be transmitted and endure? Are you on guard against drifting away from the culture? Numerous studies, including my own, show that an emphasis on organizational culture is associated with continuing excellence. Values, stories, artifacts, and rituals provide a source of identity that makes the organization feel the same, in pursuit of the same mission even while everything else changes. Culture provides internal glue. As an organization grows, what was once informal must be documented, codified, memorialized, and passed on to new people. Savvy entrepreneurs ensure that their organizations are built to last by stressing culture. At every stage, they invest in preserving fundamental values and principles while adding new iconic stories that reflect them.
I’m especially pleased to see Kanter’s reference to stories and rituals, which are key components of the Revealing Organizational Culture process (the ROC), we created for The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide. For as we’ve learned writing the book and in our subsequent work, it’s the passing on of stories – creation, survival and hero/heroine – that provides the context and meaning of why organizations do what they do in their unique ways. As Denice wrote in an earlier blog post about one organization’s strategic planning meeting:
The short stories each person shared came together to create a whole new appreciation for what the organization is and how it got to be that way. There was a fresh buzz and the feedback was we made an important breakthrough that will surely help the group with its planning this time around.
Defenses went down and intuition opened up. The stories created awareness at a level that everyone in the room could identify with. There was a new found ‘knowing’ about the organization that was buried under the surface because the group didn’t have a common way to share it before. The creation stories changed that. The power of the stories was evidenced in the openness that continued into the post meeting conversation.
For nonprofits in 2011, understanding the unique aspects of their organizational culture has never been more important. As we saw time and again in our research and case studies, successful nonprofit leaders and change agents were the ones who took time to understand; then make use of organizational culture to facilitate change and enhance their organization’s effectiveness. Those who did not were less likely to suceed. Culture is an organization’s DNA. Try to fight it, and the culture wins almost every time.
Although there are additional steps necessary to fully reveal organizational culture, telling and hearing stories gets you off to a great start. And starting is the key. Being intentional about calling attention to organizational culture will help everyone begin to see what’s been invisible, hear what’s been unspoken and name what’s been in the air all along. For these are the hidden truths that impact an organization’s performance and ability to carry out its mission each and every day.
At a time when nonprofit organizations need every edge they can muster while facing the challenge of meeting greater needs with fewer resources, our research and a growing chorus of voices tell us that taking time to reveal your organization’s culture will make a big difference. It will provide new information to use in hiring and training staff, recruiting and orienting board members, engaging in partnerships and collaborations, aligning mission, vision and values, getting the most out of your resources and, most importantly, enhancing your organization’s ability to make a difference in the quality of human and community life.
As a sector and society, we can not afford to settle for anything less.