Don’t Be A Crash Test Dummy – Please Ensure Your Culture and Strategy Are Fastened Securely

In brief: Four insights into organisational culture followed by three leadership tips to ensure you reach your destination – rather than repeatedly crashing your business dreams. 

A common response to the global downturn is: “we need a new strategy”! But there’s a problem.

New strategy = new structures and processes.

New structures and processes = new behaviours.

How people behave on a day-to-day basis is where strategy collides with culture. The new strategy gains impetus from engaged staff – or is bought to the sort of shuddering halt normally experienced by a crash test dummy.

Four Insights into Organisational Culture

1. What’s culture?

Culture is the water in the fish tank. It’s everywhere you look. And, if you’ve worked in a business long enough, virtually invisible . It’s “the way things get done around here”: values, language, symbols, stories, beliefs and habits – everything from the organisation chart to the bonus system, accepted behaviour in meetings to parking spot allocations. Like fish tank water, it needs regular attention to stay fresh – and to avoid the growth of green slime!

2. Why’s it important?

Culture is important because it’s the way people learn how to behave. Crucially, it’s stronger than any new, whizz-bang strategy.

3. Is there a “right” or “wrong” culture?

What is your business trying to achieve? The culture at a creative agency like Saatchi & Saatchi is different from the culture required to deliver Sainsbury’s success in retailing. Both vary from the “lone-wolves-together” culture at a newspaper or on a trading floor. The best test is: “Does this culture help us to achieve our objectives?” Culture is not right or wrong, but appropriate or inappropriate.

4. What’s the role of leadership?  

Cultures can go rotten without clear leadership. Relationship-focussed cultures become highly politicised. Task-focussed, performance cultures become harsh, uncaring – and even amoral. Great examples: the Barclays LIBOR-rigging scandal, the role of banks in the global financial crash – and don’t forget Enron. Leaders keep the water clean.

Three Tips for Leading Culture 

Here’s what you can focus on increase your effectiveness.

1. Take time to fully understand your culture

Cultures differ on the focus they put upon maintaining relationships versus achieving goals. Understanding where your culture is on this spectrum requires close observation of the physical environment, the way people spend their time and how they communicate. (PS, you can also use analysis tools to try to quantify what can be viewed as “fluffy stuff best left to HR”).

2. If you simply want to manage the culture – learn to swim with the current

Aligning your style to the prevailing culture is a powerful way to stack the deck in your favour. This might be about taking the time to get to know people within a relationship-based culture. Or, it might be about developing clear goals in a focussed, high-performance culture.

3. If you want to lead change in the culture be prepared for a tricky job – that starts with you

Good management swims with the prevailing cultural currents. But a leader’s job is to constantly evaluate what might need to change to make things better. Put another way: “Do we need to change the water?”

Changing a culture is possible. But it effects the beliefs and behaviours of everyone so it takes time, energy and focus. If you want to change a culture, lead from the front. Don’t simply mandate new behaviours, demonstrate them. Every day.

Summary

Whether you are changing a culture – or just ensuring it works – Oscar Wilde was right: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” It’s true for organisations, as with people. There isn’t one “good” culture we should all aspire too.

But on thing’s for sure. Whatever your unique situation, culture needs to wrap around strategy like a well-designed seatbelt.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved