“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.” -Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos.com)

There is a prevailing perception in business that the best way to tackle problems is to fix one’s organizational culture. Of course, this raises at least two questions. First, what is culture? And second, can one fix culture, or is culture something transformed by other types of change? Said another way, does culture instigate organizational change, or is it the other way around?

Culture as a Process  

First, let’s tackle the more difficult of these two questions—the elusive question to which everyone from cultural theorists to anthropologists to economists wish they had a concrete answer—what is culture? If you feel at a loss, you’re not alone. As cultural theorist Raymond Williams once wrote, “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” But did he have any answers? While Williams never did provide his readers with a definitive answer to this question, in his attempt to define the concept, he observed that culture, “in all its early uses was a noun of process: the tending of something, basically crops or animals.” Of course, over time, culture took on other meanings—it became synonymous with a certain status or class location—but this is not necessarily what defines culture.[i]

If we return to the origins of the word and understand culture as “a noun of process”—a concept related to “the tending of something”—the applicability of culture to business makes perfect sense. When one starts to understand culture in relation to process, tending or cultivation, it becomes increasingly clear how culture might be connected to the growth and health of an organization. But this brings us to a second question: In organizations, does change start with culture, or is culture a product of other organizational changes—for example, changes carried out at the level of practices or policies?

Can You “Fix” Culture?

This is precisely the question posed by Jay W. Lorsch and Emily McTague in the April 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review. As Lorsch and McTague observe, “When organizations get into big trouble, fixing the culture is usually the prescription…. All eyes are on culture as the cause and the cure.” While the authors agree that culture matters, they suggest that despite current perceptions, culture is not where everything starts: “The corporate leaders we have interviewed—current and former CEOs who have successfully led major transformations—say that culture isn’t something you ‘fix.’ Rather, in their experience, cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges like reworking an outdated strategy or business model. The culture evolves as you do that important work.”[ii]

So does organizational change start with culture or is culture a mere byproduct of other organizational changes? While business analysts continue to grapple with this question, it is worth noting that for much of the past century, anthropologists and sociologists have been asking the same question but in relation to entire communities. To be clear, despite the reams of research and decades of debate, there are no firm answers. Perhaps at best, we should accept the fact that as anthropologist Clifford Geertz observes, “Culture moves rather like an octopus…not all at once in a smoothly coordinated synergy of parts, a massive coaction of the whole, but by disjointed movements of this part, then that, and now the other, which somehow cumulate to directional change.”[iii]

[i] Raymond Williams, “Culture,” Keywords, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

[ii] Jay W. Lorsch and Emily McTague, “Culture is Not Culprit,” Harvard Business Review, April 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/04/culture-is-not-the-culprit

[iii] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture, New York: Basic Books, 1973, p. 408.