Culture by Design

Listen up. A culture change demands your attention.

The workplace has changed. The human context of today is profoundly different to what it was even 10 years ago. Collaboration outranks competitiveness — a vital shift in an increasingly complex world — and reciprocal relationships trump intimidating, top-down management styles, now remnants of an industrial mindset. Employees demand respect, empathy and purpose. Business no longer (only) needs peoples’ labour, but their intelligence and willingness to share ideas and opinions. Organisations need to foster a context, that grows a culture, in which employees feel welcome, encouraged and empowered, so as to dig in and become advocates of a shared vision.
But culture is messy. How do we develop culture, by design? How does one take the amorphous concept of culture and systematize it to create change that is felt on the ground and reflected in performance?

Start with why

Always. Why is a change necessary? Performance concern are common catalysts for change; service levels aren’t where they should be, customers are dissatisfied, or passion has been lost. So, why is the culture faltering? The right answers require observation and analysis. Research and interrogation at all crossroads. Once reasons are understood a tone and strategic intent must be set. What is the vision you are trying to achieve, and for what purpose? What is the culture that you’re looking for?

Codify

TPA works with a Culture Code, influenced by thought-leaders such as Edgar Schein and made our own by virtue of a strong measurement angle and a creative approach. A systematic framework that guides the culture process; concretising often abstract factors. It’s a hard and deliberate drive to establish a culture change in any business. All elements of the code integrate and work together to champion a drive towards a clear vision.

Culture is almost always broader than some might choose to believe. It is the context in which each individual works, developed via an intricate mix of tangible and intangible factors. It is the smell of the place.

Intangibles
Vision, mission, values, core purpose, all-important why

Tangibles
Language, visual artefacts, environments, policies and procedures, business rituals

An organisation may say they are customer-centric, but if the customer doesn’t feature in the language used or in the business rituals, there is a disconnect. A Core Purpose may be sound but obscure, living only on a page or PDF. A culture change is a campaign — a movement! — and requires strong visual and verbal artefacts that people can confront and engage with. This visibility and physicality are crucial so that participants see and feel the change. Once a organisations intangible and tangible factors align a shift becomes palpable.

Culture by design

Work with leaders

When embarking on a culture journey one must start at the top. Tinkering in one department will never result in the impact so often needed. Work must be done alongside the leadership team, the MD, the CEO. Leaders have an incredible responsibility and need to be convinced of just how important their commitments, demonstrated through their actions, are. An understanding of the big picture and endorsement of strategy at leadership level is crucial, before cascading the message down through as many levels of the organisation as possible.

Flex

Business, human and environmental context is a treadmill. You have to flex! As Rita Gunther McGrath writes in The End of Competitive Advantage, “Stability, not change, is the state that is most dangerous in highly competitive environments”. The Culture Code systematizes the process, but real, human change never moves in a straight line. Work must remain organic. Feedback and insight will arise over waves of engagement, necessitating creative response and everyday solutioning. Goals may change, and this is fine, because a culture shift calls not for a checked-off list, but a discovery of an ethos, a communal effort of people working towards a shared vision.

Measure, measure, measure

What cannot be measured cannot be managed and cannot be changed. By design means designing the impact of a culture change as well as the metrics that will reflect its success or misfire.

Baseline studies determine the levers you need to drive, while ongoing surveys and data analysis create a consistent feedback process. Measurement focuses attention where it needs to go, highlighting areas which may need attention or support. It ensures the process remains relevant and grounded, evidencing performance with employee, customer and financial metrics. Culture change becomes a form of practical action-based research.

Listen

A culture change is an immense endeavour that demands patience and bravery. It requires an attitude of interest and engagement, and a reimagining of what performance looks like.

Whether you are the client, the consultant or the CEO, a culture change asks that you listen. To immerse yourself within the existing context and the people around you; to observe, ask and lead with humility. Be ready to strengthen your social skills and test your empathy. Don’t assume and don’t project. Be curious, honest and vulnerable (be uncomfortable!). Honour the people you work with.

The success of culture is that it is its own; unique. Neither an imitation nor a mask, but a living, breathing thing that honestly represents the context of the organisation and its individuals. A culture change is complex and iterative and a process, and this is what it should be about: A journey of continually interrogating how we can lead ourselves to a better place.

November 28, 2018

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