Perfect cultures and paired cultures

“There is no ‘perfect culture’ that all nonprofits should try to achieve. Each organization’s culture must be understood on its own terms, including its strengths and challenges. What is effective for each organization will be unique to its culture.”

This quote was pulled from our Page to Practice feature this month, The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide: Revealing Hidden Truths that Impact Performance by Paige Teegarden, Denice Hinden and Paul Sturm.

Here’s what the authors had to say when asked about “perfect cultures:”

CausePlanet: Most of us follow or model best practices when we want to improve something. If there is no “perfect culture,” how do managers go about improving it?

Authors: Every organization’s culture is unique, made from its own history and the groups of people who have been at the heart of the organization. Our research tells us this work is less about ‘improving’ culture than about honoring the culture that ‘is’ by revealing it, so that culture informs key decisions made by the organization’s leadership. Although there are likely to be elements of an organization’s culture that are unhealthy or unintentionally hinder the organization’s work, the culture in and of itself is not something that can be improved in the literal sense. However, understanding the unique elements of an organization’s culture – both positive and negative – can help leaders develop more effective strategies to improve systems, procedures, hiring practices, working environment, etc. in ways that enable the organization to more effectively make its intended difference.

When you consider that the U.S. nonprofit sector represents nearly two million organizations and employs nearly eleven million people, the social sector plays a critical role in America’s cultural fabric. Because nonprofits have such a large part to play in the economy, there has been a larger push from funders and community volunteers to better understand the impact nonprofits are making. Culture has become part of this sectorwide conversation.

Although culture is an ever-present term used throughout leadership and management literature and commonly identified as responsible for powerful outcomes, it’s rarely defined and specifically analyzed. The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide provides a simple process for gleaning organizational truths about culture that helps you define your culture and develop a summary statement with which you can guide all your important management decisions.

This week at CausePlanet, Vance Yoshida of La Piana Consulting wrote about why nonprofit should explore sharing administrative services, which in many cases can be the beginning of more formalized alliances or collaborations. Consequently, culture becomes a consideration. In our interview with the Culture Guide authors, we also asked:

CausePlanet: Talk to us about culture and merger considerations. How much are cultural differences a sticking point when examining two organizations as potential partners?

Authors: We think it’s critical for organizations to understand their unique cultures before consummating a merger. Remember AOL/Time Warner? Virtually every analysis written about the merger’s failure mentioned the merged organization’s inability to meld the two original organizational cultures. We believe this is no different for nonprofit organizations. Undertaking a merger is challenging under the best of circumstances. Attempting to merge two organizations with conscious knowledge of the different organizational cultures increases the potential for everyone involved to make better judgments about what will facilitate a successful merger and create a cohesive, integrated organization.

We also recommend that both organizations separately undertake the ROC process, and then come together to talk about areas where the cultures overlap or are complementary – as well as areas where there are likely to be problems. Then delve into areas of potential conflict, seeking to understand how deeply held these elements of culture are, and what aspects of organizational process and structure reinforce them. With this information, the merger team (representatives from both organizations) can have frank and open discussions about whether or not the two organizational cultures can be integrated over time or not. If the answer is ‘not,’ then depending on the circumstances and reason for merger discussions, one organization may simply agree to its programs being spun off, without it being a true merger.

Whether you are seeking “to perfect” your individual workplace culture or make two cultures compatible, the authors argue that defining it to begin with is a critical step in improving every aspect of your management decisions—be they hiring, board training, strategy development or alliances.

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