What is Your Organizational Culture? (The Taken for Granted Test)
I love strategic thinking. It thrills me to observe what’s happening in my church, analyze the possibilities and opportunities for improvement, and then make a plan of action. Nevertheless, I know that even the best strategic planning is not nearly as important as my church’s culture.
Peter Drucker famously wrote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Your organization can put together endless plans, processes, and people in place to execute your mission perfectly. But, unless your organization has a culture that supports your mission, you will ultimately fail to achieve your goals.
What is Organizational Culture?
What is organzational culture? Think of it this way: if your vision (mission statement, values, priorities, etc.) represents your aspirations, your culture is what actually happens. Or, your vision is something you put on paper, but your culture is what exists in reality.
So, your mission statement might preach “excellence,” but your culture might be lazy and lackadaisical. In a church, your mission statement might talk about seeking the salvation of the lost, but your culture might be insular, cliquish, and inhospitable.
Those cultural problems—if unrecognized and unaddressed—will gobble up even the clearest strategy and vision.
What is Your Organizational Culture?
How do you know what kind of culture your organization has? Unless you know where you are, it is difficult to know where your culture might be undercutting your mission. Worse, without knowing where your culture is going wrong, it is impossible to know what you need to do to work toward a better organizational health.
But even if you recognize some aspects of your culture, it’s hard to see everything, since culture is like air—you don’t see it, but you are always surrounded by it, and it affects everything you do. Just like fish don’t know that they are wet, we struggle to recognize the reality of our culture.
The Taken For Granted Test
One helpful tool to diagnose your culture is the Taken for Granted Test. Simply ask yourself: What is taken for granted in my organization that would be disputed in another context?
Imagine that someone from a very different background, philosophy, or (in the case of a church) religion entered your organization. What would surprise them? What would they need to adjust to? What would they admire about what you do? What would bother them?
Now, the opinions of outsiders don’t prove that something you are doing is good or bad. That is a separate question. The main thing is to identify everything in your culture that you might not see because you take it for granted in a way that an outsider would not.
Below you’ll find a few areas to think through applying the Taken for Granted Test. I’m using this right now to evaluate our church from multiple angles to identify places where we are strong, and areas where we need to seek to improve.
(Did I miss any areas? If so, leave a comment below.)
Authority. What authority is taken for granted in your organization? Whose opinion does it go without saying that you will consult? When the leadership (on paper) reaches a decision, who has the ability (in reality) to veto it?
Certainly, this will include people in specific leadership roles—whether official or unofficial—but think also of the authority outside your church or organization. For example, is the Bible really an authority? What cultural figures (authors, speakers, politicians, journalists, etc) speak with authority to a broad group of people?
Practices. What rituals, processes, or activities are understood to be untouchable? As you think through everything you are doing, imagine cutting each activity—would your organization move on without skipping a beat, or would there be a palpable sense (whether expressed through sadness or anger) that you have ceased to be you?
Values. What one or two values does your organization instinctively cherish above all your other values? When you are crunched for time, money, and manpower, what one or two values would your organization allow to be sacrificed without too much fuss? What things are taken for granted that your organization would refuse to sacrifice, no matter the cost?
Priorities. What does your organization automatically prioritize in your day-to-day? What does your organization naturally procrastinate from doing?
This is a similar criterion to values, but they are distinct questions. For values, you are asking what gets choked out when you lack resources. For priorities, you are asking what tends to fall away when you have plenty of resources.
What priorities do you take for granted that might surprise an outsider?
Goals. What does your organization consider to be a success? This is actually a two part question: (1) What goals are you trying to reach? and (2) How do you know when you have attained those goals?
First, if you are a church, what feels like a successful service/event/ministry? Lots of people in attendance/involved? Passion and energy, whether in the singing, the conversation, or something else? Clear presentation of the truth? Warm fellowship? Lots of fun and entertainment?
Also, over time, what do you consider successful for your church? Seeing new people come to know Christ? Growing in membership? Ongoing faithfulness? Ever-deeper fellowship?
Second, it is equally as important to observe how you judge whether there has been success. Do you look exclusively at the hard numbers—attendance, baptisms, membership, giving? Or, do you judge where your church is on your intuitive sense of how things are going? How you judge success says almost as much about your culture as what you judge to be success.
Responsibility. What are the things that your organization feels an intuitive, unquestioned, deep sense of responsibility for? In other words, even if you knew someone down the street was already doing a pretty good job in some area, what would still you feel compelled to do as well as possible, to the best of your abilities? What tugs at you, keeps drawing you back, and galvanizes the most people, energy, and resources around when a concern in that area comes to light?
People. Image two different scenes, and try to gauge your immediate emotional reaction. First, imagine that you are having a conversation with someone who has been in your church or organization for a very long time. How do you feel when you talk with them? Comfortable or uncomfortable? Safe or threatened? Excited to pick up the last conversation you had with them, or bored to think of talking about the same old things again?
Second, imagine that you are having a conversation with someone brand new to your church or organization. How do you feel when you talk with them? Eager to get to know someone new, or wishing you could talk to someone you already know? Warm and welcoming into your church/organization, or aloof and suspicious of the baggage that this person might be bringing?
Now, ask what someone else might feel when talking to you or other people in your church/organization. Would they feel safe, or would there be a sense that they need to guard themselves? Would they feel accepted, or would they struggle to find a place in the midst of long-formed friendships or even cliques?
Purpose. At the end of the day, what gets your church or organization excited? What lifts people out of duty into the realm of delight? What makes people glad to sacrifice their time, money, and energy to accomplish the goals of your organization? What do people talk about to encourage one another in the trenches?
Be honest—do you find drive in money, winning, and numeric growth? Or in people, stories, and doing good? Or in God, truth, and the gospel? Or in some combination of all these factors?