over the years i have been blessed with the opportunity and the fortune to help shape culture in organizations. some instances were by design and some were the result of circumstance. none of them, i believe, have been accidental.

what i mean is that there are certain factors in my ministry and career that take shape out of the definition of who i am created to be. all of us can lay claim to a specific calling (okay, maybe not specific, but specific enough) and to a uniqueness about ourselves. in my case, one of those specific things is being an influencer for culture change.

in looking back at over fifteen years of being involved in culture shaping there are certain truths that i can find across all of those instances. not one of these truisms are unique to my experience, nor can i take credit for them. however cliche they may seem, they are all important in the process of culture change.

anyone who has gone through business school over the past three decades most likely has come across a copy of edgar schein’s “organizational culture and leadership.” in schein’s model the idea of organizational culture is defined as something akin to the patterns of shared assumptions (or norms) a culture has that are observable in organizational artifacts, espoused values, and the basic assumptions made in the organization.

so in order to change culture you need to first identify what assumptions, values, and artifacts need to be changed, then go about changing them.

simple, right?

when i served as associate pastor at new life center in harbor city, one of the things that i worked with the lead pastor on was specifically changing culture. much of what we did was designed to break free of ethnicity based cultural norms and to move towards something different (to be fair we both probably did not have a good grasp on what that was supposed to be). in this case most of the leadership and volunteers where open and desirous of change. we did some great things. it was a good time and one of my favorite experiences. several years later under the weight of other, unforeseen circumstances, the culture we built did not last.

in contrast, i also worked for a privately held organization where top leadership was concerned with culture, strived to build a strong culture, yet engaged me knowing that i would help bring about change. to them change meant better alignment in my sphere of influence towards the corporate culture they were building. to my team members, it meant fixing a problem that they disliked. there were different expectations put on my from both the top and the bottom. while i was able to do some good things, because the cultural change i was engaged in did not fully bring the team members inline with senior leadership, the culture i build did not last.

in both cases culture was temporary and changing. and that is the rub. organizational culture is not, and cannot be something static. the moment something in your organization changes, the culture also changes (shawn lord has an interesting read on this).

so whether you are the senior leader in your organization, someone with empowered organization influence, or someone who is rank and file with your team, here are five truisms that will help you change culture – or do something enough like it.

no. 1: everyone has an idea of how to “fix” culture

from the most senior to the most entry level person in any organization, everyone has an opinion. and none of them is right. some may be more right than others, but no-one has a monopoly on what makes good organizational culture. rather, organizational cultures fit some people better than others.

takeaway: do not try to fit organizational culture around the people you have, but around what you are trying to accomplish. then find people that fit into that culture.

no. 2: you are not in control

you as a rational-reasonable human being are capable of making concrete effective decisions. so are the people you work with (well most of them probably). as such there is a certain level of independence and autonomy we all crave and wield in organizations. you cannot control how others will react to culture setting or the change you are trying to make. so do not try to.

takeaway: rather than set expectations or to have expectations that others will follow in your pursuit, create a set of standards that you can all strive towards.

no. 3: your (current) values are not necessarily real

what edgar schein defines as expressed values are those things organizations say they are about. these tend to be aspirational (what organizations hope to be) rather than incarnational (what an organizational actually is). nothing can erode culture faster than organization that says it is one things and actually is something else.

takeaway: do not be afraid of simple organizational goals, especially if you are a church. be honest – what do you want to accomplish. articulate those in simple metrics, then state how they should help guide decisions. most importantly, do not be ashamed of them. there is nothing wrong with measuring what you do.

no. 4: be unrelenting and ruthless

most leaders have this notion that other’s thoughts and opinions are valid in defining what their organizational culture should be. while input is good and a process that is inclusive can be helpful, culture shaping should not be a plutocracy.

takeaway: once you have decided what you are going to be about, do not let anything stop you. even if it means changing personnel or team members. one of the best things i ever heard about church growth was from a mega-church pastor in southern california: “you have to be willing to fire your friends.”

no. 5: live out the culture you are trying to establish

one of the most intriguing things about cultural change is that it usually resides in the realm of “that would be great if.” as in, “that would be great if we could do do things differently, but we are too busy and we just need to get stuff done.” results matter, but organizational culture is not about results, but about how you go about getting those results.

takeaway: at the end of the day, no matter if you are the one defining the culture of the organization or someone who is in involved in the change, you need to live out the culture. otherwise all you are doing is just saying words.


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