Enhancing Organizational Culture for CLA
A team or organization’s culture is its set of shared norms and beliefs - both spoken and unspoken. The culture, and resulting organizational climate is established over time by leaders and team members and informed by the organizational purpose and context within which it operates. Culture is continually communicated, reinforced, and changed through various means, including team members’ encouragement or discouragement of specific practices and behaviors. The health of the culture shapes the team or organization’s capacity to solve problems and innovate, engage in Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) practices, and create a positive enabling environment for its employees.
A hallmark of high-performing cultures is trust among individuals. Trust fosters “psychological safety,” or the shared belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.1 How is this connected to CLA? If staff feel safe in taking risks they are more likely to take learning-oriented, adaptive actions that improve results.2 There is significant evidence that “Learning leaders” establish a learning culture by enabling non-hierarchical relationships, inspiring continuous improvement, and integrating a focus on learning in organizational processes. For example, USAID/Jordan’s Program Office and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) support contract, MESP, created a structured, post-evaluation knowledge-sharing process that created space for the co-generation of recommendations by USAID and evaluators.
Culture can be an enabler or barrier to a team or organization’s success. Cultures that encourage honest discourse and reward team members who practice conversational turn-taking, for instance, can more efficiently surface programmatic failures that can be captured and shared as learning. A growing body of evidence from both quantitative and qualitative studies recognizes healthy environments marked by employee engagement, empowerment and satisfaction as critical to successful organizational performance. In organizational cultures where engaged employees take pride in their work, are passionate about what they do, and are committed to the organization, the mission, and their job, they are more likely to put forth extra effort to get the job done.
Thus, the relationship between organizational culture and CLA can be a virtuous cycle: the culture can support and bolster CLA processes, while CLA behaviors can provide the framework for a healthy organizational culture. Together, CLA processes and behaviors help advance development outcomes.
Variations in context, resources, and objectives suggest that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to designing and launching efforts to enhance an organization’s culture to support CLA processes.
The tips below offer several considerations to help define, launch, sustain, and evolve such efforts. Building a healthy culture is an ongoing and iterative process, rather than a linear one. It requires internal motivation and openness to trial and error in order to be sustainable over time.
- Identify a core group of leaders and champions to nurture ongoing efforts designed to improve the organization’s culture.
- Having buy-in from leadership, e.g. the Front Office, as well as technical and support offices, ensures that activities and interventions designed to enhance the organizational culture for CLA are prioritized via dedicated time and resources. The absence of support from leaders will negate the effort. But a wholly top-down approach will fizzle out if staff from all corners are not engaged.
- Identify champions for change across the organization and work with them to determine what they need to be successful in leading the effort. Seek to understand the incentives of these champions, including recognition, increased influence, and a desire for better development outcomes, and have them help define their role in driving change.
- Look for a small number of people (no more than 5 or 6) to serve as a steering committee to provide insight, feedback and advocacy. This also a great way to involve administrative staff, like Mission EXO or the AMS staff for Washington-based operating units.
- Define your needs - begin with the end in mind.
- Launching and sustaining an effort to increase organizational effectiveness and CLA capacity requires focus, energy and motivation. The following questions can help you define your objectives:
- What key cultural challenges are people motivated to work on? What degree of systemic change is possible?
- Is a more incremental approach likely to succeed and strengthen the organization over time?
- How can enhanced CLA practices - for example, pause and reflect processes - contribute to greater organizational effectiveness?
- How might you struggle to meet your objectives if the team does not address cultural concerns?
- What does the team hope would be different as a result of your efforts?
- Also consider whether you would benefit from periodic or ongoing outside assistance, such as a support activity and/or consultants that could provide neutral expertise and support (here is an example of a solicitation for organizational development support). If the answer is yes, involve them as early as possible in the assessment and planning process.
- Consider the context.
- Start with positive aspects of your culture to strengthen. Rather than start new systems from scratch, identify current processes, meetings, and Program Cycle touchpoints to foster a CLA-friendly and healthy organizational culture. For instance, ensure that staff onboarding includes an orientation to the organization’s (or team’s, unit’s) efforts to enhance its culture. Look for opportunities to bolster openness and participation in an upcoming portfolio review, CDCS mid-course stocktaking, or procurement process to enhance team and organizational culture.
- Also consider external drivers or obstacles that could impact your efforts, such as funding, staff transitions, the host country context, and constraints on people’s time. What changes and uncertainties do you need to keep in mind?
- Small can be beautiful! Scale your interventions based on time and resource constraints.
- Missions and teams do not necessarily have to embark on large-scale organizational development efforts to see improvements in their cultures. Consider the potential impact of your ideas against the effort needed to implement them, as well as constraints that could hinder progress. Even a 15-minute after-action review at the conclusion of a meeting or process can spur meaningful knowledge sharing, learning and adaptation.
- Amplifying evidence of positive CLA behaviors can be powerful. Remember that cultures are interdependent ecosystems, so a small (and strategic!) change or improvement in one area can yield positive effects across the organization. Another check on overcommitment is considering how and whether your team can hold itself accountable to the elements of a plan.
- A wide range of resources is available to help teams work on improving their organizational culture. USAID offers support via Staff Care and HCTM. Teams can also leverage support mechanisms and individual consultants to help design and implement culture change initiatives.
- Learn from and adapt implementation.
- Consider how you can measure the impact of your efforts. Could you collect and synthesize qualitative information, such as stories of how new practices have positively impacted openness or helped you identify and adapt when needed? Quantitative measures, such as annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) data (in the case of US government agencies), can also provide a critical window into employees' perceptions of organizational culture.
- In addition to collecting information on the impact of your interventions, what systems can you put in place to learn from your deliberate efforts to build a healthy culture? Being able to more quickly adapt to emergent information will allow your team or organization to mitigate challenges before they grow and pursue new opportunities that promote a constructive workplace culture.
1 See Dr. Amy Edmondson’s research to learn more: Edmondson, Amy. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Cornell University. Sage Journal.
2 Hakanen, M., & Soudunsaari, A. (2012). Comments. Technology Innovation Management Review, 2(6). Retrieved from https://timreview.ca/article/567; Costa, A. C. (2003). Work Team Trust and Effectiveness. ResearchGate, 32(No. 5), pp.605–622. doi:10.1108/00483480310488360; Erdem, F., Ozen, J., & Atsan, N. (2003). The relationship between trust and team performance. Work Study, 52(7), 337–340. doi:10.1108/00438020310502633