Culture Change? Start with Your Organizational Constitution

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

As with many quotes attributed to famous business leaders, that quote may or may not have first been said by Peter Drucker. Regardless of attribution, is it true? Does culture eat strategy for breakfast?

Absolutely. And lunch and dinner, too.

The business landscape is littered with examples of brilliant strategy that failed because the organization’s culture could not support implementation. Your company culture is what determines how your organization accepts and adapts to change, and the best strategy is about business change and innovation. If you want your business to be successful and lead the marketplace, your culture must be up to the challenge.

In his book, The Culture Engine, S. Chris Edmonds recommends developing an organizational constitution as a foundation for cultural change. “An organizational constitution is a formal document that states the company’s guiding principles and behaviors. These liberating rules present the best thinking on how the organization wants to operate. The organizational constitution is a North Star that outlines the company’s or team’s defined playing field for employee performance and values.”

Before you can create an organizational constitution, you must understand your organization’s current cultural situation, beliefs, and norms. Start by conducting a dispassionate audit of your current culture. Edmonds recommend that leaders keep an open mind and take these steps:

  1. De-Insulate Yourself. It is normal in hierarchical business structures for leaders to limit the number of people from whom they get input and advice. Open yourself to hearing beyond these “usual suspects” and increase your number of sources of information and ideas.
  2. Connect with Employees. Your employees know when someone is genuinely interested and listening, and when they are just going through the motions. Ask about your employees’ lives outside of work. When talking about work, listen carefully without defense or excuses.
  3. Seek Truth-Tellers. Truth-tellers are those individuals who are unafraid to share their perceptions, beliefs, and opinions. All organizations have Truth-Tellers; find yours and listen carefully.
  4. Test Your Assumptions and Learning. It is only human to listen through our own biases and beliefs. Test your assumptions by sharing them with others and asking for reactions and feedback. Then, adjust your assumptions and beliefs, and plan accordingly.

While you should get wide input to developing your organizational constitution, establishing your organizational purpose and values starts – and stays with – leadership. Once the formal document is final, communicate widely to make sure that everyone understands their role and responsibility within the culture. Writing in the forward to the book, The Culture Engine, Ken Blanchard says, “Once everybody is clear on your business purpose and values, the next aspect of effective leadership kicks in – living according to your organizational constitution.”

This is where servant leadership comes into play. Blanchard continues, “While our research indicates that 80 to 85% of the impact on organizational vitality or success comes from operational leadership, without a clear organizational constitution, there would be nothing to implement or serve.”

Edmonds writes, “I define servant leadership as a person’s dedication to helping others be their best selves at home, work, and in their community. Anyone can serve–and lead–from any position or role in a family, workplace, or community.” Servant leadership provides that extra 15 to 20% of the impact that pushes businesses beyond expectations.

Edmonds quotes Jerry Nutter as saying “Everything a leader does either helps, hurts, or hinders, the creation of a great team culture.” No matter how narrow your sphere of influence, all leaders have either positive or negative impact. There is no neutral in leadership. The tool of organizational constitutions works at the team and business unit level as well as for the entire organization. What is your impact?

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