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Organizational Culture: Change Process

0 Laura Roelofs
orchestra2 Editor's Abstract

If you have read the “about us” area of this website, you know that our roots are with an organization that was founded by Paul R. Judy in 1994—the Symphony Orchestra Institute. As a successful businessman with a keen interest in music and symphony orchestras, Mr. Judy created the SOI with the particularly interest and dedication to improve the effectiveness of symphony orchestra organizations. His interest in organizational change led him to commission Laura Roelofs to write a series of eight articles for the web version of the SOI journal Harmony. The articles describe various approaches to understanding and implementing organization change.

Today Polyphonic begins presenting this series again, and will publish one article every two weeks. But to start us off, and since seven years have elapsed since Laura published the first article on the subject, we asked her to bring us up to date with recent trends in the field.

Ramon Ricker

Organizational Culture: Change Process

In our installment on Organizational Culture we discussed cultural analysis as an approach to organization change. We will now look more closely at the process of culture change.

Culture change is difficult and time consuming because “culture” is rooted in the collective history of an organization, and because so much of it is below the surface of awareness. In general, the process of culture change must include the following steps:

  • 1. Uncover core values and beliefs. These may include stated values and goals, but they are also embedded in organizational metaphors, myths, and stories, and in the behaviors of members.
  • 2. Acknowledge, respect, and discuss differences between core values and beliefs of different subcultures within the organization.
  • 3. Look for incongruencies between conscious and unconscious beliefs and values and resolve by choosing those to which the organization wishes to commit. Establish new behavioral norms (and even new metaphor language) that clearly demonstrate desired values.
  • 4. Repeat these steps over a long period of time. As new members enter the organization, assure that they are surrounded with clear messages about the culture they are entering. Reinforce desirable behavior.

It’s clear that culture change is an ongoing process, so it’s very hard to identify organizations that have “completed” a successful culture change. We can, however, find examples of change-in-progress, in organizations that range from Harley-Davidson to the Pittsburgh Symphony. As we look at several examples, in this installment and the next, we will see some version of the process described above in each–even in organizations that did not originally set out to change their cultures!

Levi-Strauss is a company that did engage in a purposeful culture change process. In 1985, a group of minority and women managers requested a meeting with the CEO, complaining of discrimination. The CEO convened a three-day facilitated retreat at which white, male managers engaged in intense discussions with minority and female managers. These discussions revealed that there were, indeed, hidden attitudes in the organization that were in conflict with its espoused values.

Since that time, Levi-Strauss has worked hard to generate cultural change. The company developed an “Aspiration Statement” including desired beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. The statement specifies the company’s commitment to communication, ethical management practices, employee empowerment, and recognition for those who contribute to the mission of the company.

Employees at all levels also participate in training sessions on leadership, diversity, and ethics. Employee evaluations are based partially on how well they support the “Aspiration Statement.”

To underscore the fact that changing an organization’s culture can take a long time, we would note that at Levi-Strauss, change has not been entirely positive in the lowest tiers of the hierarchy. Increased teamwork and peer evaluation have demanded major adjustments in people’s expectations and behavior, and that has led to increased conflict at times.

Symphony orchestra organizations have generally taken a much less direct approach to culture change initiatives. Faced with internal or external challenges, some orchestra organizations have found innovative solutions; in the process, they have created positive change in at least some aspects of their culture. A number of such cases have been documented in Harmony.

For instance, the October 2001 issue of Harmony includes an article about the San Francisco Symphony’s efforts to take a new direction in approaching contract negotiations. Although the San Francisco process was narrowly focused toward transforming relations among those involved in negotiations, it clearly included the cultural change steps outlined above.

As author Robert Mnookin explained in the Harmony article, the symphony secured grant funding to begin a conflict resolution program using outside facilitators. Important symbolically as a commitment to change was the fact that the grant proposal was submitted jointly by the board, management, and the players’ committee on behalf of the orchestra.

Through a series of training sessions and facilitated discussions, including listening, leadership, and negotiating skills, the symphony did begin to transform its culture. With help from the consultant team, they exposed conscious and unconscious assumptions about the negotiating process. They agreed to a new set of assumptions to be shared by all parties, and they created new behavioral norms based on those assumptions.

In the grant proposal, the purpose of the program was described as including goals of improving relations among all parties and creating a more effective, cooperative team. Program activities, including work in cross-constituency groups, helped to make the team metaphor more of a reality.

The important point here is that members of the San Francisco Symphony participated in a process designed to foster cultural change. In the conclusion of his article, Mnookin describes the new leadership of the San Francisco organization as being “at the helm,” a metaphor that brings to mind a ship under full sail.

Metaphor can be a surprisingly powerful factor in culture change (or perpetuation). One prominent organizational theorist, Robert Marshak, writes that metaphors and myths are a primary mental framework for both individuals and organizations. He believes we need to analyze organizational symbolism, and reframe or replace metaphors that are no longer serving an organization well.

In Part 2, we will look at ways in which some organizations have used symbolism as one of their tools for change.


T. Cummins and C. Whorley. 1997. Organization Development and Change. Cincinnati, OH: Southwestern College Publishing.

R. Marshak. 1996. “Metaphors, Metaphoric Fields, and Organizational Change.” In Metaphor and Organizations, D. Grant and C. Ostwick, eds. London: Sage Publications.

R. Mnookin, with G. Friedman and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld. October 2001. “A New Direction: Transforming Relations within the San Francisco Symphony.” Harmony 13: 13.

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