Work Is A Battlefield

April 1, 2011       Thomas McLaughlin      

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. It doesn’t even wait for lunch. It’s true. And, as someone who spends a significant amount of professional time on strategic matters, it is a bit discomfiting. But there can be little question about it. The culture of a nonprofit is a far more powerful force than its strategy could ever be.

Does this mean that the street smart manager should ignore strategy as a tool? The implications of culture’s predominance actually make it more necessary to set a clear strategic direction.

To understand why this is the case, think of culture as embodying the collective values of the people in an organization. Culture is a far more reliable guide to an organization’s values than the Statement of Values posted on the website or framed in the lobby. This is because necessity is the mother of virtue, as well as invention. An organization that values frugality will do so because its funding patterns or overall economics demand it. An entity that needs to grow will make a virtue of initiative and drive.

Who decides and how?

A quickstart guide to an organization’s culture is to figure out how the group makes decisions. Decision-making is a sure-fire key to organizational culture because that is where the true values operate.

To get an idea of a nonprofit’s culture, ask several people this question: what were the last two or three major decisions this organization made, and how did it make them? The answers to this question will always be revealing in two ways.

First, the process of decision-making will say a great deal about information flow, the degree of inclusiveness, and whose opinion is valued and for what reason. Second, the similarities — or differences — in how different individuals define a major decision are inherently instructive. And for those situations where the outcome was a decision that wasn’t made, that is an even more revealing look at the culture of an organization. As the American theologian Harvey Cox wrote, not to decide is to decide.

The service model

Values are also embedded deeply in an organization’s choice of its service model. A small, innovative, newly organized nonprofit will usually have a culture of passion and collegiality. The well-funded research institute might share those values but the passion may be less animated and there is likely to be a strong commitment to expanding mankind’s collective knowledge.

Service models have deep but often hard-to-spot influence. For example, a hospice and a home care organization might seem to sit comfortably within the healthcare world, but there cultures are likely to be extremely different. In most healthcare environments, death is evidence of failure. Yet for a hospice, death is part of a process and is accepted as such. Both are valid points of view, but each will shape an organization’s culture in dramatically different ways.

Who gets hired?

Another big driver of culture is personnel selection. Adults bring their own sets of values to their jobs, and organizations usually tend to select employees who are already at least somewhat compatible with the pre-existing set of values. In addition, an organizational culture will tend to reinforce certain values more than others.

Here’s a guide to how the hiring function shapes culture. The less that a nonprofit has to produce a reliable outcome on a regular basis, the bigger a role that compatible values will play in personnel selection and therefore in the shaping of the culture. Conversely, in a large, production-oriented environment, employees are more likely to feel a bit alienated or even out of step with the prevailing culture. But in most cases their problem is not truly being out of step but rather that there is a lack of consistent cultural cues, which leads to a sense of being less fully engaged. Without the burden of high production requirements, a smaller organization will feel warmer and more “plugged in.”

How to shape culture

Streetsmart managers interested in shaping culture can do a few things. The most important is to have a strategy. Given the first two sentences of this column, that might sound like a contradiction, but it is really not. As limited an effect as strategy could have on many areas, a clear and well-understood strategy is still one of the most powerful things for any organization to possess. A good strategy gives everyone guidance about how to make the many little decisions and choices that every working day brings.

Changing the service model is another way to shape culture. This does not necessitate a wholesale change, because even a small modification can have a significant effect on culture. For example, a nonprofit health club that primarily functions as housing for exercise machines would have a much different culture if it added guided sessions on health and wellness and beyond. This is why most YMCAs try to reach beyond the sheer act of exercise toward their larger goal of impacting the social and physical health of entire communities.

In education, the classic service model is changing in ways that are historically unprecedented. Charter schools, whether independently operated or run by school systems, usually offer a new culture, while public demand has caused public schools to change service models to incorporate things such as nutrition and after-school programming. Each of these changes subtly influences the school’s culture.

Note that model change will lead to culture change in micro-settings within larger entities. Individual programs can easily change their culture by modifying the way they provide services, especially if they have a bit of physical separation from the larger sponsoring entity.

Changing the decision-making process will always have a big impact on organizations. This can be one of the harder vehicles for effecting culture change, although it is one of the most powerful. Many managers and executives regard the decision-making process as a kind of bland background feature. Yet, decision-making engages or excludes in deeply-felt ways.

One of the fastest ways to change culture is to involve more people in the decision-making process. Soliciting input and suggestions not only can improve the quality of decisions, but the process itself conveys respect and value for those asked to become involved. Some managers will think this is counterproductive. Inviting more cooks into the kitchen doesn’t guarantee a better broth. This is true only for decisions with a short time frame or limited impact. Deciding what color to paint the hallway is not a group decision, but expanding services into the most appropriate neighborhood should involve the group.

Finally, formal training programs will shape culture in the intermediate to long run. So will their absence. The respected economist Paul Samuelson was reported to have said: “I’d be happy to let other people write my laws – if I could write their textbooks.” Training programs are especially effective for younger employees who tend to be more open-minded and willing to invest the time. They also are an articulation of what the organization believes is important, and thus virtuous.The reason culture prevails over strategy is because strategy is cerebral while culture is gut-level. Keep culture from eating everything in its path by using your head. NPT

Thomas A. McLaughlin is a member of the faculty at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. His most recent book is ‘Nonprofit Mergers & Alliances’ 2nd ed., from John Wiley & Sons. His email address is