Hungry for change?

Hungry for change?

Research has shown that culture is one of the most pervasive and elusive organisational drivers, but when we get it right, it can facilitate sustained high performance. It is therefore well worth leaders’ time to actively work on their culture and ensure it is aligned to the overall purpose of the organisation. So, the question is: “What do leaders need to do if cultural shift is desired?”

We are often asked to work with organisations, particularly leaders, to help them get their culture ‘right’. The assumption that can often sit behind this request is that culture is something that is tangible – that it can be easily diagnosed and influenced with the right tool and intervention. However, in our experience, it is more accurate to say that culture is the outcome of tangible things, much like the ingredients of a cake. Without flour, sugar, butter and eggs, the cake can’t exist. The art for organisations is knowing the right ingredients that will produce their ideal culture ‘cake’.


The first step is to get clear on your end game. Organisations need to have a clear vision, a well-understood strategy and defined outcomes that are championed by senior leaders. Without this end game in mind, you cannot be expected to define a culture that can support it.

Establishing a clear strategy and vision isn’t new and many organisations do this quite well. It is at the second step that organisations often go wrong – by trying to define the culture that is desired like it’s something you can choose off a shelf. This often looks like seminars or workshops where small groups cluster together and brainstorm ideal versions of their culture – describing values and artefacts that symbolise when the organisation has ‘made it’. An example might be: “Our culture needs to be dynamic and creative”.

Instead, what is more effective, in our experience, is running the same workshops but focusing on the behaviours that lead to the same cultural outcome. This subtle but important distinction means the focus of the conversation is on how people work together and what it looks like when the team is humming. To do this, leaders must focus on the preferred organisational characteristics (such as decisiveness, collaboration, openness etc) and then describe the behaviours that bring them to life. Using the previous example, the revised description may be: “In our culture we support agile working groups coming together at all levels to process ideas”.

A critical third step is allowing the people who live the culture to be a part of the process of generating the desired behaviour list. This can take different forms and the extent of consultation must be scalable for organisations of different sizes. For example, large organisations can conduct a workforce survey to identify ideal behaviours whereas smaller organisations may utilise focus groups or workshops to generate staff contribution. The importance of this step cannot be underestimated – without the workforce feeling included in the creation of a cultural shift, they can experience any change as being done ‘to’ them.

In the same way that making a cake requires preparation and timing, so too does the consultation process. This means, whichever approach is used, inviting staff to share their views needs to be channelled in accordance with the organisational strategy. Senior leaders need to provide clear parameters and be generous with information from the outset of consultation so that staff expectations are managed.

Making a change to organisational culture is a process that takes time but one that can bring significant reward.  It can be bring about a change in business trajectory that benefits all the organisation’s stakeholders. A clear end game, a focus on required behaviours and an inclusive consultation process are invaluable ingredients.  Every organisation just needs some good chefs (leaders) to bring the cake (culture) to life.

So, who’s hungry to make a change?


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Guest Wednesday, 26 June 2019