Organizational Transformation and the Three Cultural Lenses™

In a previous article, we outlined what transformation is and why it is urgent. We asserted that most transformation efforts do not yield their intended results because organizations fail to transform the way they think. This transformation in thinking results from discovering and articulating an integrated business philosophy comprised of three important components: a purpose-driven strategic philosophy, a values-centered leadership philosophy, and a vision of stakeholder experience. This is how we see transformation and how we implement it for clients; it is the core of our consulting philosophy. In this article, we will further explore our understanding of why transformation efforts fail and offer additional insights that may help you identify crucial, and perhaps missing, elements of your current transformation efforts. 

Seeing Organizational Culture in Three Dimensions

The cultures into which we are born and in which we live out our lives shape how we see and experience the world. This is what makes people within the same culture more similar to those in their own culture than to those of another culture. This is also true of organizational cultures. People working in different organizations with different organizational cultures tend to see, experience, and act in the world in distinctly different ways. 

How might we usefully describe these different ways of seeing? Through our global work over the last 25 years, we have come to recognize that people of all different cultures admire and idealize perfection; however, they differ in how they see and seek it. Although there are many different ways to categorize these differences, we have found it useful to consider three: Structural, Relational, and Ideological. These categories comprise our Three Cultural Lenses™ Model, and they exist in all cultures and in all people in different proportions. 

When people look through the structural lens, they see perfection in the realm of objects, technology, systems, structures, or procedures, quantifying and objectifying them. They measure nearly all value in monetary and other measurable terms. Alternatively, when people look through the ideological lens, they are more principle-driven rather than technology-driven. They understand and value the qualitative and see perfection in ideas and models from whose principles they do not deviate. Finally, when people look through the relational lens, they see perfection in felt experience and the sensations and feelings engendered by the intimacy of relationships. They value relationships and feelings over money and principles.

With these lenses in mind, consider how organizational transformation is usually approached. 

Change Management and the Structural Lens

The primary perspective of most transformation efforts is change management—redesigning and realigning organizational structures, systems, technologies, and processes. These changes are tangible and actionable; more importantly, they are measurable. Because progress in making structural changes is observable and quantifiable, these efforts often receive substantial investment of resources. This also explains why consultants often organize their offerings around structural changes. 

Using our Three Cultural Lenses Model™, we can see that structurally-driven change management results from operating almost exclusively through a structural lens and will therefore appeal to those people who see and make sense of things primarily through a structural lens. However, while these structural changes are necessary and important, we can also see that change management often tends to ignore both the relational and ideological lenses. This has the unintended consequence of leaving both relational and ideological people feeling uninspired and disengaged. Our model explains what we see as one of the primary reasons change efforts fail. 

Change Leadership and the Relational Lens

Change management that neglects the human aspects involved in change will fail to deliver on promised results.  Addressing these human dimensions more explicitly led to the development of change leadership. Change leadership looks through the relational lens and focuses on ensuring that the emotions, fears, uncertainties, goals, motivations, and values of the people involved in change are considered and managed as part of the change efforts. Leaders are asked to not only lead others through the change process, but also to inspire them through changing and growing themselves. This is a more difficult and complex process than structurally-driven change management, and it is harder to develop and even harder to measure. The difficulty in measurement further leads to questions and doubts about ROI, often resulting in an under-investment of resources. 

Organizations that have the wherewithal to combine change management (using the structural lens) with change leadership (using the relational lens) will be far more successful at change efforts. However, even this combination leaves out the important ideological lens. As we shall see, it is the integration of all three lenses that results in successful organizational transformation.

Organizational Transformation and the Ideological Lens

While the disciplines of change management and change leadership seek to align process and people for change, even when combined they do not answer the crucial question of why. At best, they offer a compelling how. But it is the why question that is most powerful in catalyzing and sustaining transformation, as it is the only question capable of making the transformation meaningful. The why question is answered only by understanding the purpose of the organization. It is purpose that gives rise to strategic distinction and strategic direction; it is purpose that inspires the voluntary release of discretionary energy on the part of employees; and it is purpose that fuels innovation in the face of overwhelming constraints. 

To understand an organization’s purpose requires looking through an ideological lens. It is the ideological lens that operates in the discovery and articulation of an organization’s integrated business philosophy. This business philosophy provides the necessary and foundational transformation in thinking that integrates and aligns change management and change leadership efforts. 

To summarize, successful transformation requires looking through all three lenses in an integrated way. It involves deep changes in thinking and shifting of mindsets (ideological); it requires inspiration from the leaders charged with change (relational); and it entails changing structures and processes (structural). 

Additionally, the order with which you engage each lens is important. As previously mentioned, most change efforts focus on the structural lens first, resulting in poor outcomes. Our experience suggests starting transformation efforts with the ideological lens first. The time invested in developing an integrated business philosophy will make implementation of the relational and structural changes more efficient and more effective going forward. Further, beginning with the ideological lens will make it easier to integrate the planning and implementation phases of the project. 

If you recognize the need for your organization to transform, or if you are tasked with leading transformative change, remember to consider the Three Cultural Lenses. Begin with the why question to ensure that each step in the process is meaningful and purpose-driven. From there, make sure you plan to develop your leaders in such a way so that they can inspire the organization to deliver on its purpose. Only then should you consider the necessary structural changes.

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