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Is Culture Contagious?

Nearly every news broadcast of late carries a story about the impact the pandemic has had on each of us personally and collectively. We hear about culture in a medical sense when Doctors test for colonies of bacterial germs within our biological systems, we assess the impact of wearing masks and social distancing on our cultural way of life and we debate the aftermath of the pandemic on our corporate cultures and working lives.  

While there is much that remains unknown about what the ultimate result will be on our working lives, it is important to gain a better understanding of what culture means in relation to our organizational lives in order to make decisions about what we want it to resemble, and what we need to do to change it if we wish to manage it.  Therefore, I recently spoke with an expert on corporate culture, Jim Rowe, Change Management Independent Consultant ( to help clarify the issues. The following are excerpts from that interview with my thoughts on his answers:

Jim Rowe, Change Management Independent Consultant shares ideas on corporate culture

Jim, by way of explaining your expertise to readers; what is a Change Management Professional, how does a business know when to use one and how to choose?

Typically, Change Management, Organizational Design and Digital Transformation are engaged late in the project planning lifecycle, if not left our entirely.  The advantages of incorporating a Change Management expert earlier creates a more integrated plan, reduced disruption to the organization, speeds adoption and drives higher proficiency.  The net result delivers improved ROI.  Since the Change Management process includes the communication plan, it also assures better project awareness earlier in the initiative.  Let’s talk about each so the right components are included in the next project being considered:

Change Management is the practice of applying a structured approach to transition an organization from a current state to a future state to achieve expected benefits.  Incorporating Change Management can help share the burden and lighten the load for the project Management team and increase project ROI.

Organizational Design is the process of aligning the structure (both hierarchy and SME’s) of an organization with its objectives. The ultimate goal of Organizational Design is improving and optimizing efficiency and effectiveness. Re-engineering an organization requires a solid understanding of the Standard Operating Procedures of the existing and new role(s), developing clear job descriptions, and performing a gap analysis to understand new requirements and the resulting change needed to achieve the objectives.

Digital Transformation includes constantly innovating the culture, business application and approaches to fundamentally change how you operate, compete and deliver value to customers.

Understanding these deliverables will help project leadership to select and align with a practitioner that can adequately guide your organization to the desired future state on time and within budget expectations.

Most businesses focus on the content of the jobs to be done.  Few take the time to review and assess the process by which business is done.  A Change Manager’s role and area of expertise focus on the HOW of business beyond the WHAT.

Business pundits and commentators speak often of “Culture” – what exactly is a business culture and as a business owner, how do I create a “good one?”

Your workplace culture is the mix of your organization’s value, traditions, beliefs, behaviors and attitudes that meld together and develop a unique organizational emotion or temperament.  It changes and differs as you look a little deeper into an organization’s office buildings, floors, and teams.  So an organizational culture is a distilled down version of it’s loudest and most engaged subsets.  I think some adjectives can help when thinking about your office or work culture:

Positive                                                                                          Negative

Supportive, Connected                                                                  Destructive, Siloed

Transparent, Nurturing                                                                Disjointed, Stressful

Fun, Welcoming                                                                             Boring, Hostile

The chemistry of a successful, nimble business culture is very difficult to obtain and more difficult to maintain.

Perhaps it is very evident when we compare the feelings we get when we walk into a library versus a sports bar, or a court of law versus your Church.  The mood is quite apparent and the way people behave and think are noticeably different.  That same evidence can be seen when comparing the Accounting Department to the Marketing Department in some businesses, or how customers are treated versus how senior executives are treated.

Measuring culture is far from simple

How Is Culture Measured?

An organization’s culture can be outlined, shaped and directed; but for a number of reasons, I think it is hard to truly and accurately measure it (conjures up the phrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to describe obscenity, “I’ll know it when I see it.”).

Rowe continues:

  1. Individual perspectives vary.  Since a key barometer for measuring culture is emotionally driven, it will be hard to get any two individuals to completely agree. For example, one individual may excel in a less structured environment and another may prefer to have greater oversight, communication, and direction.  Neither is right or wrong, better or worse.  Their needs, expectations and perspectives vary.
  2. Organizational cultures are in a constant state of flux.  By the time a study of substance gets completed, the culture has  evolved and the study is no longer reflective of the current state.

Even if you could create a word cloud for an organization’s culture, just the normal ebb and flow of people joining and leaving the organization would result in an ever-changing entity.  However; I do believe that an organizational culture can be outlined, shaped and directed.

What Are the Key Drivers to a Successful Company Culture?

  • Identifying core values.  The backbone of every company culture is its vision and mission, which describe how the business survives and remains relevant in the marketplace (we have all seen mission statements and corporate values on the lobby walls or breakrooms in offices, but how often do the words match the emotion or behaviors mentioned above?).
  • We also need to understand how values and beliefs differ from norms.  Values can be interpreted as understanding what is good, appreciated or desired.  Beliefs are tenets or convictions that individuals hold true.  Individuals have beliefs, but groups hold collective values.  
  • Further to that point, sanctions are a form of social control, a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms.  Formal norms are established, written rules.  There are many formal norms, but the list of informal norms – casual behaviors that are generally and widely conformed to – is longer (think of the difference in corporate expectations this way; showing up to work on time is a formal norm, speaking to your peers politely is an informal norm).

Rowe then suggested three primary processes to accomplish this:

  1. Building an empowered community (allowing people to learn, share and model values and behaviors in action)
  2. Leveraging a “coaching environment” throughout the organization (using both formal training along with informal mentorship and coaching opportunities to reinforce corporate culture)
  3. Follow the topgrading principles implementing value-based hiring (for more detail on topgrading, click here).

There is nothing like a global pandemic to help companies take a good long look at their business culture and start the process of evolving that culture to their vision in an attempt to create the perfect work environment for their business model.  After working remotely now for a year, combined with the discomfort and awkwardness of PPE and social distancing, the office work processes and culture will permanently change.  This seems like a great time to focus on culture as we move forward and come out of the pandemic, and it certainly is.

If a business was previously run in very much the typical “Command and Control” way and is now permitting more autonomy, remote work environments, flexible hours, etc. – what tools are available for companies to use to effectively make the changes necessary?

It is great to see business resiliency supporting and empowering employees.  Technology has been a powerful supporter in enabling culture to evolve as environments get more flexible, dynamic, productive and even – fun!

A key component to every change project I have participated in and probably the greatest reason my change efforts are effective is my focus on the Stakeholder Analysis.  I start my Stakeholder Analysis with a continuous interview process beginning with mid-level managerial interviews and typically working down the organizational hierarchy to get a macro-level understanding of the business processes and sub-processes (importantly, the process does NOT begin at the most senior levels, but rather where the work is done to get the most unbiased view of the organization’s methods, processes, values, norms, etc.).

Once I feel I understand the “case for change” – the WHY behind the change and have a good start on the value drivers supporting the change, THEN I begin to interview up the managerial hierarchy, including my sponsor – but only when I feel I have a solid understanding of the value proposition supporting the change.

After a successful discussion with the sponsor and I have had an opportunity to process the feedback, revise the Case for Change and value proposition as needed; I begin interviewing the Subject Matter Experts and allocate the time necessary to these discussions.  This is typically the most valuable part of the interview process and provides a lot of the bedrock when developing my communication, engagement and training plans, validating my case for change/value proposition and assessing organizational readiness.

Holding off on the SME discussions is important and strategic because I want to be sure I have a clear and correct understanding of the current state and desired future state, (the reason for the change) and this is all validated and aligned with the sponsor.

There is clearly a purpose and method to how the interviews are conducted and the timing of the interviews in order to derive the maximum benefit.

In the Post Covid-19 business environment, much has changed in terms of management, how work is produced or completed, etc.  What changes have you noticed and how have companies had to adapt to the new environment and expectations?

Companies are moving away from large urban corporate offices and this will impact organizational cultures. VM Ware is offering permanent remote work, Facebook and Infosys offer 30-50% remote, offers flex-time with colleagues in the office 1-3 days a week and Microsoft allows work from home up to 50% of the week.  Future organizational cultures will be subject to the same fractionalization that advertising companies experienced in the late 80’s and early 90’s as cable forced companies to move from advertising on 3 networks to hundreds of cable stations.  We are currently experiencing and expect to continue:

  1. Reduction in large corporate urban offices and a redefined corporate workspace including sanitation protocols, temperature checks, and social distancing measures. We see significant increase in non-critical work being completed remotely and the evolution of the work from home space and technology
  2. Increased flexibility with office/remote or a blend of the two, sliding start and workday completion times, continued blurring among full, part, evening, weekend, and holiday hours
  3. Continue outsourcing work to independent contractors, contingent workers, or piecework providers
  4. Increased independent learning and eLearning through the use of Learning Management Systems (LMS)
  5. Empowerment and continued growth of cross-functional teamwork.  Leaders and Managers will be increasingly challenged with effective communication and engagement while trying to minimize loneliness and social isolation.
David Zahn