culture change

Is it really time for culture change?

The established ‘way of doing things’ is just not delivering the high performance, competitive edge, or that market-leading position that you need…. “We need culture change around here or we’re history”.

But, just before anything gets changed, before the HR and Communications teams are wound up, before Advisors are appointed etc., ask yourself these two questions:

  1. What exactly is the existing culture?
  2. Will it, consistently acted out, deliver what our customers really value most?

In truth, there are a couple of supplementary questions to both these two. For example, “How do you really know what the culture is, what’s your evidence for this?” And to the second question, “When was the last time you discussed with a customer, how your culture delivers something they really value? What did they say?”

When the answers are understood better, and you have at least some evidence of this, consider whether culture change is the only solution. Would a restatement or reinforcement of the existing culture, more deeply understood and acted out across the business, be another solution? Or is a ‘change’ in culture, a new way of doing things, the obvious choice, perhaps based upon your customers’ insights?


What is an organisation’s culture, how is it shaped and what do you see?

Culture is multi-dimensional. It’s a learned behaviour. Business leaders and team members, by their actions, demonstrate (or not), the kinds of behaviour that make up the culture of an organisation. It’s sometimes acted out in different ways, in different functions perhaps, or different regions. Culture is learned at different rates and, following acquisitions, is in a high degree of tension when potentially competing cultures are meeting up. Culture is inclusive of customers, particularly in a service environment, where customers don’t just have direct contact with the supplier, they’re contributing to an experience for other customers too, whether that’s in a restaurant, or even in a bank.

Leaders shape culture too. They make, reinforce, and occasionally break, cultural norms in what they do and say. If the way they behave doesn’t match up to what they say, the dissonance can create damaging new stories of ‘how things are done around here’, which are at odds with the espoused company culture. So as well as being a culture builder, leaders should be careful not to undermine the foundations of it.

At an individual level, how does culture manifest itself in an organisation? When you join a new company and even when you are at an interview for a new job, you look around for clues on the prevailing culture. You get clues in everything from dress code to whether people are holding tight to hand rails on the stairs (in HQ offices of oil companies as well as on their oil platforms for example). These are some surface and visible signs of culture. Dig a little further over your first few days at work and you get further insights. How meetings are run, and whether they start on time, have an agenda or are a creative open season. What behaviour is rewarded or recognised in the business? These are all examples of shared learning experiences for ‘how things are done around here’. As you spend longer in the business, or even if you are a regular customer, it becomes clearer and you form a view of the culture, at least that part of the culture that you experience.

So what is the culture in your business? How can you really know?

In any business that has undergone a Lean or similar transformation, employees on production lines are recognised as having some of the keenest insights into delivering what customers need more efficiently. The tools, practices and mindset give employees like this insights into what works in a company. Similarly, service employees who serve customers every day have insights that they can understand better than anyone because they are in constantly updated ‘moments of truth’ with their customers. So it should be with any review of culture. What do customers value most and why? What conditions make it possible for employees to deliver this? How can leaders support the process?

Observations and insights, gathered from employees and customers for example, could build on the first two questions in this article, with others like these:

  • Is there really a prevailing culture that is acted out through behaviours in the business? What are the top three behaviours people talk about as ‘positives’? Are there negative behaviours that repeatedly come up? How do leaders deal with each type of behaviour?
  • Is this ‘culture’ consistent across the business functions, regions, service or manufacturing units? What about in those parts of the business that were perhaps acquired or joined through a merger?
  • Do the systems and processes in the business support or undermine the desired culture? What stands out? And finally, and perhaps most importantly,
  • What do our customers value most about our culture, and of course, value least?

So should you just aim to be more consistent in your culture or is a change really needed?

Neither approach is straightforward; involving a critical mass of employees, leaders and customers in developing a deeper understanding of your culture is a significant endeavour. But whichever option is taken, at least the decision is based upon a strategic intent to either reinforce or change a company’s culture. Each requires a shared understanding, between leaders, team members and customers of what is valued. Whether you need to reinforce, restate or change a company’s culture, the multidimensional nature of culture needs a multidimensional approach. To find out how we can help, contact us here.

Simon Hardaker is a communication specialist and a key member of The Change Maker Group.

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