Culture Due Diligence
In the last post I talked about doing culture surveys. In this post I’m going to explore some qualitative methods to do your culture audit.
While surveys give you breadth and quick assessments, qualitative methods such as Semi-structured Interviews can give you depth and nuances. Interview formats can be designed to reflect a broad-based scan of how leaders perceive their organization and think about their organization vis-à-vis the external environment. Other questions might be developed to elicit illustrative examples about success profiles, cultural icons (heroes and villains), sayings and organizational myths. Questions such as ‘who are the heroes around here?’ or ‘what gets someone into trouble?’ can provide fabulous insights about the culture to job seekers as well.
When conducting interviews, err on the side of using a few high-value, open-ended questions. Interview a cross-section of employees and thought leaders to provide richer, more diversified insights — especially since leaders often have their own agendas.
The biggest caution in doing interviews is to ensure that the interviewers are well trained and prepared. In times of high anxiety such as mergers, poorly trained interviewers can do significant damage or inadvertently alienate some leaders and employees, which increases the risk of chaotic and divisive transitions or loss of key talent. Conversely when the interviewers are skilled, they not only build rapport and trust, they reduce anxiety and engage employees in planning for the future.
One final caution when conducting interviews is to recognize that in situations such as acquisitions or mergers, there are several reasons for receiving answers that are fronts. Leaders may want to put on a positive face, espousing the language of acquiring company. They may have an agenda of trying to keep their jobs or protecting their employees. Additional probing may provide the interviewer additional clues about the organization’s culture such as “always putting on a positive public face” or “it’s risky to be completely honest”.
Focus groups are another method for gathering qualitative data. The simplest strategy is to identify several key questions from the interview questions and conduct a number of focus groups within the organization utilizing the same sub-set of questions in each group. The advantages and disadvantages to collecting data in from focus groups revolve around group dynamics and skillful facilitation. Skilled facilitators not only understand how group dynamics impact what participants share, but also recognize that the groups themselves will exhibit some organizational cultural dimensions. Through their own observations, facilitators can really help create a rich culture portrait.
Creating and using all these tools does take time and sustained effort. If time is of the essence or you have a limited budget, start with the less complicated tools such as the Observation Inventory coupled with some interviews or focus groups. These tools are relatively easy to create and train people on how to use. You’ll be able to gather enough information to paint a rich picture of the culture. Surveys as mentioned in a previous post can be costly and time-consuming.
Whatever you decide, consciously focusing on an organization’s culture will give you insights about how people interact and work effectively or not. You’ll learn where performance does or doesn’t meet expectations and what’s getting in the way of current change initiatives. All these clues will enable your organization to make changes for sustainable improvement.