by Jo Geraghty and Derek Bishop

The first steps to culture change

When asked for directions, a wise man once said, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’ And it’s the same with culture change. The temptation is to rush in to change, to stand up in front of the assembled masses and, with a note of exaltation in your voice, proclaim that from now on it’s all going to change, all going to be different.

The trouble is that it won’t be different, and starting with an announcement is the one sure fire way of ensuring that not only will nothing change; things will actually get worse as employees sit back, fold their arms and prepare to be let down. The need for change may have been driven by a perceived problem or by external influences, but either way, unless you know what drives the culture at the start, you haven’t a hope of changing it. So step one in the process is to undertake a cultural audit.

Step 1 - The cultural audit

From the moment that someone steps into an office or otherwise comes into contact with a business, aspects of the culture start to appear. Outward signs include

  • Office layout, employee dress and attitude
  • Strict hours or flexible working
  • Correspondence response times
  • Silos or collaborative working patterns.

But there are also hidden assumptions which may only become apparent over time and which have an equally profound effect on the way in which the organisation operates and presents itself to the world. These hidden assumptions may include

  • The filtering of information as it passes up the command chain
  • Not taking holidays at certain times
  • A culture of excessive hours
  • Being able to step outside the command chain to provide customer solutions.

Taking time to understand both the outward and hidden signs is a vital first step towards creating a culture which will lead the organisation towards a strong future. But it can be hard for those within the organisation to see every aspect of the culture. When you live the culture day by day your actions, attitude and assumptions are influenced by the culture and that makes it hard to step outside and ask the question ‘why’:

  • Why do we follow this process?
  • Why do we act in this way toward each other?
  • Why is the chain of command set as it is?
  • Why is the shared lounge area TV permanently set to BBC1?

To be effective, the audit has to be impartial and in many cases that means that organisations may well decide to call on help from an external organisation. This doesn’t have to take the form of a complete review, although often that is the most cost- and time-effective solution. But those who prefer to run audits in house may benefit from guidance on the way in which the audit should be structured, the types of questions to ask, or moderating the way in which feedback is analysed.

When running a cultural audit, the optimum results are obtained from a quantitative and qualitative analysis. This not only matches actual metrics to impressions and feedback, it can also minimise disruption. Anonymous surveys, focus groups and observational reporting can all help to build up an accurate picture of current culture. It is also important to ensure that a cross-section of the workforce is involved. Remember that, when it comes to problems such as silo working, inter-personal problems or team unrest, the cause could sit at any level within the organisation. If the focus group is too narrow, the truth could easily be obscured by back-covering.

Similarly, it is important to consider whether third parties need to be included in the assessment. Customer focus groups, supplier feedback and general industry comment from an appropriate regulator can all help to focus attention on what needs to be done. Overall, the assessment might reveal some uncomfortable truths, but until the leadership understands where the organisation stands today, it will not be able to move forward.

Step 2 - Define the organisation’s purpose, vision and values

Once the assessment is complete, the leadership team should be able to start to define the future shape of the organisation. Here again, it is important not to rush ahead into imposing a solution. For example, the assessment may have revealed a problem with one department operating under a silo mentality. It’s all too easy to jump into instructing the department to co-operate more or to change the team leader. However, the root cause of the problem may lie more in the leadership imposing limiting targets, in an organisational structure which of itself isolates that department or with inadequate resources being provided to enable the team to function effectively. None of these will be overcome by rushing a dictatorial solution into place.

The answer is to take time to examine the purpose, vision and values of the organisation, with particular emphasis on the findings of the evaluation. The purpose encompasses the aims, goals and aspirations of the business. These will include the underlying assumptions that the vision and strategy are built upon. The vision sets out where the business should be, while strategy aims to get it there. Revisiting the purpose, vision and values of the organisation on a regular basis is one of the prime tasks of organisational leadership, whether or not the culture requires resetting. To do otherwise is to sleep-walk into disaster.

Step 3 - Translating the vision into action

Now that the leadership team have defined the future shape of the organisation, they can start to set the attitudes and behaviours which will help to deliver a strong future. These are often ingrained within an organisation and can be the hardest to change and yet the most rewarding when they do.

Some, such as honesty and integrity, are often so implicit in any employment contract that they can be overlooked. And yet, when you look beneath the surface, they can form the basis for the implied contract with customers and third parties. For example, a culture which actively incorporates integrity would not deliver forged customer documents, rate fixing, small print which is heavily weighted in favour of the organisation, or targets which can only be met if unsuitable products are sold to vulnerable customers.

The exercise to define the purpose and to set the attitudes and behaviours is generally carried out by the senior management team, but here again it can be worth bringing in external experts to facilitate the discussion. Particularly in cases where a complete overhaul is required, it can sometimes be difficult for executives to put aside ingrained attitudes and to step up to the changes required.

It is rare for steps two and three to be completed in a single meeting. A series of focused meetings not only gives the participants time to reflect and refine, it also provides opportunities for key employees within the organisation and third parties to be sounded out as the first step in engaging hearts and minds in the idea of change. However, to prevent any employee goodwill which was engendered from the initial discovery phase becoming dissipated, the discussion and definition time should not be unduly prolonged.

Only once the leadership have a clear vision about the beliefs and behaviours which they want to instil in the organisation can they move on to the next phase; that of managing and leading culture change.