Using Strategy to Shift Culture with Washoe County

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

It’s a famous Peter Drucker quote that is perhaps one of the most over-used quotes in the modern business world; it’s also still one of the most true.

Here in our hometown, we’ve been working with Washoe County and its many departments on strategic planning for several years. One of those cultures, the Community Services Division (CSD) has been focusing on the “improving customer service” arm of the County’s overall strategic plan.

But after several years and several iterations of their plan, they’ve hit a wall. Unsure why, their leadership team decided to take a big step back and truly address why they haven’t been able to move the needle.

When goals are stuck, maybe the bigger problem isn’t the team’s ability to actually execute the goal or plan– but rather the underlying cause of lackluster performance is a need to shift culture. Culture is a difficult thing to measure and manage, and it certainly correlates to an organization’s ability to perform strategically. In our own words, it’s “squishy.”

CSD embarked upon a process to help define the root of their culture problem, identify how they needed to change their beliefs and behaviors, and create actions that support the change of those beliefs and behaviors. Here’s a high-level overview of the approach we used with CSD to help begin their culture shift.

Step 1: Identify the reason for change.

For CSD, the driver behind the change was hitting a wall in the performance against their plan. They simply were fighting a roadblock they couldn’t pass in moving the needle on their customer service goals and metrics.

Step 2: Identify the action behind change.

CSD wanted to change the way they play and operate. That shift in action came with the need to shift their beliefs, behaviors, and actions (much easier said than done). In this phase of the process, they really focused on what their commitment is to the community, what behaviors/beliefs they currently possess and want to keep, what behaviors/beliefs they wanted to change, and what behaviors/beliefs they need to add to meet their commitment to the community.

Step 3: Identify the impact of the change.

This is the “so what” about the effort to shift culture. How is it going to positively impact your staff? Being clear about how a culture shift impacts the organization helps your team understand why culture needs to change and how it will positively impact them. For CSD it’s about creating a work environment where ideas are heard, a workforce that doesn’t feel over-worked, and creating a participation-first culture.

Step 4: Ruthless dedication.

The often overlooked fourth step is ruthless dedication to leadership driving the change process. We have to give it to CSD’s leadership team for staying focused and dedicated. It’s a hard, long process to change and they’re well on their way to improving the culture of the Community Services Division.




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