Starting with the Culture

-Dan Holloway, Pinnacle Associate

Over the years we at Pinnacle have been privileged to work with many groups that are seeking to clarify their mission and to establish a clear identity about their future work and service. This vision and discernment work has always been important and may be even more so in this time of cultural transition and change. Remembering who we are and why we exist is the basic responsibility of any organization that seeks to impact the world around them with significant effectiveness.

But how does this happen? Most would agree it is important to have a clear understanding of our mission and it is equally important to communicate the meaning of that mission to our group members on a consistent and regular basis. Healthy organizations inevitably spend significant amounts of time talking about their primary calling and seeking to define that calling in missional language. Having a clear and concise mission statement is certainly an important step in the process.

But equally important in my experience, and sometimes far more important, is attention to the culture of an organization. Organizational culture as defined by John Kotter, is the “group norms of behavior and the shared values that help to keep those norms in place.” Tod Bolsinger in his book Canoeing the Mountains says: “Culture is the set of default behaviors and usually unexamined behaviors or unreflective practices that make up the organizational life and ethos of a company, organization, family, or church.” Simply put, organizational culture is “the way we actually do things around here.”

For example, a church may have in its mission statement that it will practice transparency, and yet the normal behaviors in that congregation lead to much secrecy and a sense of being in the dark about what is really happening. The mission statement may say that “every member is a minister” and yet it quickly becomes apparent that nothing of significance happens without the blessing of one or two key staff members. The mission statement may say that the church is committed to the practice of hospitality but in fact church visitors too often leave without a personal word of welcome. Organizational culture is the way things actually work in any given entity and it is an undeniably powerful force. No wonder organizational expert Peter Drucker is reported to have said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast every time.”

That is why attention to organizational culture should be a constant focus of conversation within any organization seeking to be effective and faithful. We can communicate one thing through our words but something very different through our actions. We can say all the right things and yet find that our behaviors are sending a very different message. Bolsinger is right: “Culture is not the aspired values printed on a poster or put up on the front page of a website. Culture is the combination of actual values and concrete actions that shape the warp and woof of organizational life.”

Clearly one of the most important conversations any leadership team can have is about the current culture of their organization. It is to ask this most basic question: How do we really operate in this place and is that way of operation communicating the message that we want to share? This can obviously be a difficult conversation as it means seeing the reality of our current organizational life with eyes wide open.  Yet faithful leadership leads us to ask these very questions, knowing that such is the first step to greater alignment with our real values and missional goals.

Helen Renew