If your organization has survived the past few years, surely you have improvised and experimented with new ways of doing things. You have probably reconfigured some of your processes and redesigned your teams to deliver value in your products and services to your customers and your community. I applaud you for the dynamic capacity you have demonstrated in moving through the challenges of these past two years.
Now, entering 2022, it is time to recognize those strengths and leverage them with more intention, as you lead your organization through the uncertainty and complexity that the next two years promise to bring. In this blog, I’m examining organizational culture and its relationship to your organization’s capacity to innovate. I’m not taking about new products in particular, although that is an important part of innovation; I’m focusing primarily on your capacity to respond adaptively to challenges in your industry and the larger ecosystem with new processes and structures that allow you to sense change and context, experiment, improvise, make decisions, act and then calibrate, in order to seize opportunities and serve your customers and other stakeholders better. I am speaking about the relationship between your organizational culture and your organization’s capacity to respond by reconfiguring your assets, whether the assets are in social relationships and capital, in leadership and human capacity, technological, knowledge-based or otherwise, in order to build and sustain your success.
One of the challenges of organizational culture is that leaders believe they understand it. “I’ve got this,” they say. “Our culture is the norms, practices, and shared values of the organization.” It is that, of course; however, it is much more and includes what we don’t see, the influence that culture has on us of which we are unaware. Much of culture is implicit. This is why it is so important to undertake an organizational assessment in order to surface norms, patterns of thinking and behaving, narratives, beliefs and assumptions, to make more explicit what is implicit. Quoting the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” This is our challenge with organizational culture. For example, I have observed in my work in Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DEI) that when an assessment reveals a lack of openness, trust and transparency among employees, these outcomes are often not intentional, but rather the result of a combination of good intensions, the “implicit” nature of the organizational cultural processes and norms, and a lack of awareness about the real impact of the existing processes, policies and practices.
With a deeper understand of your organizational culture derived from an organizational assessment and the support of an experienced consultant, you can establish a baseline and create a roadmap of programs and developmental activities to help shape your organizational culture to enhance your capability of meeting your strategic objectives.
Again, why is an exploration of organizational culture essential? To better understand the cultural norms and patterns of behavior in your organization that either support you in meeting your strategic objectives or not. To discover what practices and patterns of behavior might be sabotaging your capacity to innovate, we have some answers from current research. For decades we have understood, from the literature and experience, that organizational culture influences an organization’s capacity for innovation. Recently, researchers Somonnoy Ghosh and Bhupen Srivastava found in their review of the existing literature and conducting a new study of organizational culture that several attributes of culture are critical factors for innovation: openness and participation, an orientation toward results, ‘constructive dissent,’ and trust. Thus, leaders should strive to develop and encourage these cultural attributes, orientations and patterns of behaviors as levers in building and sustaining innovative capacity.
These recent findings encourage, in particular, a focus on the norms of communication, collaboration, and cooperation to ensure that organizational patterns and practices support both formal and informal information sharing and foster social interaction. Further, to achieve active participation, as well as encourage an orientation toward results, leaders need to consider enacting a more decentralized decision-making processes and a more flexible and less hierarchical organizational structure. Policies need to be seen as encouraging participation, diversity and inclusiveness. As trust is generally foundational to openness and participation on the part of employees and other stakeholders, organizational policies need to be perceived as supporting openness, fairness, and transparency and there needs to be consistency in the application of these policies. This will enable the leadership to gain the trust required for participation and to foster a spirit of receptiveness to new ideas. Further, a ‘results orientation,’ one which emphasizes action and outcomes, suggests a higher tolerance for risk and experimentation.
I particularly like Ghosh and Srivastava’s use of the term ‘constructive dissent,’ as it aligns with my work with clients in helping them to develop their capacity to move with greater ease between Candor & Diplomacy, as they negotiate difficult strategic conversations and introduce new ideas and greater awareness about culture and outcomes in their teams and the larger organization. Also, I find that many leaders in organizations are struggling with developing a culture of ‘constructive dissent.’ It is critical for members of an organization to share their ideas, even if it represents a deviation from the norm and perhaps especially if this is so. Dissenting ideas, constructively presented, are sources of stimulation, learning, and valuable feedback for the organization. Dissent is a check on the tendency toward ‘groupthink,’ failing to test assumption and explore the implications of a decision, rather than simply repeating habitual patterns of behavior. Teams and organizations need ‘constructive dissent’ to realize adaptive behavior and exercise good judgment.
Fénix Leadership & Development works in multiple ways to support clients to realize desirable outcomes in an uncertain and ever-changing environment:
- We collaborate to help clients develop their teams and team processes to ensure greater alignment in values, vision, methods, and execution among and between departments and teams
- We administer organizational assessments in a discovery process that encourages greater awareness of existing culture, policies, and practices and their impact among all participating stakeholders so that teams and organizations can build greater trust and a more innovative and inclusive culture
- We are seasoned leadership coaches drawing from evidence-based frameworks and processes to accelerate development and growth of leaders
Overall, we support clients in customized programs designed to expand their awareness of themselves, their organization, and their environment so they can act more effectively and generate the organizational culture that supports building dynamic capabilities and sustained success.
*VUCA (Volative, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous), term coined in 1987 at US Army War College to describe complex environments.