Culture’s back (again)

3rd May 2016

Culture’s back (again)

And, like the ancient art of Morris dancing, it never really went away. Culture was the big buzz word in business during the 1980s, right up until the time that greed became good (around 1987). What kicked if off was the Peters and Waterman book, In Search of Excellence. Inspired largely by Tom Peters’ experiences on the PT boats during the Vietnam war, and based on his PhD thesis, the book sends a clear message that if you want your business to succeed, you need a ‘strong’ culture. Despite fatal flaws with the research methodology, that message still persists in many businesses.

Then came the nineties.

A different kind of culture

The message changed. Instead of success coming from a ‘strong’ culture, we were told it came from a ‘caring’ culture. The focus shifted from task and results to people and values.

Then, as we know, the noughties threw all that away. Any idiot could make big money on the back of an ever-expanding global economy, so nobody needed to worry too much about culture.

Back to the beginning

The revolution has now come full circle. According to recent research from Deloitte consultants, culture is important again. The preoccupation of the majority of the 7,000 odd companies involved in the research was how to ‘reshape’ culture to support the changing structure of businesses; more diverse, more distributed, more fragmented.

The challenge for these businesses is how to integrate the culture of geographically and ethnically diverse companies, which may be operating in almost all the time zones on the planet.

There are practical problems with cultural integration. If you have 50,000+ employees globally, you can’t exactly get them all in the room at the same time and tell them what you expect from them. Nor can you have a one-to-one with each of them. It’s a big issue, especially when global organisations have so many outsourced business partners and freelance people in key delivery areas. In others words, people who can’t be intimidated, I mean managed, in the same way as employees.

What these businesses want to do, according to a recent Forbes article on the subject, is to ‘shape culture [to] drive strategy’. Several important assumptions are being made here;

– A single corporate culture is desirable, or even achievable

– Culture has a cause and effect relationship with business performance

– Culture is shaped by senior management interventions

– The better your culture, the better your performance

This is exactly the kind of thinking that caused the great sage, Steve Martin to remark way back in the 1970s that in his confusion about the how the world works he wouldn’t believe in anything ‘if it weren’t for my lucky astrology mood watch’.

Culture from top to bottom

Business owners, managers and advisors seem to be confusing ‘how we think about culture’ with ‘how we change culture’. Most consultants will say that if you want to change culture you should start at the top. That’s right to an extent, but it needs to be ‘bottom up’ too. If you want to set cultural aspirations, then of course you need to start at the top. But the way you get the change you want is to start at the other end, with behaviour.

It doesn’t matter

It makes no difference if you are evolving your values, or shifting from a sales to service culture, or any other flavour of ‘culture change’. If you’re doing it right you will quickly distil it down to two questions;

– What do we really care about (ie what are our values)?

– What behaviours do we really want to change (and in what ways)?

But you need people outside your business to help you answer those questions. Not because the questions are difficult to answer. Because of credibility. For your people to engage in the process they need to believe that their voices will be heard, and if management are running the process then staff will be cynical and uncooperative from the off.

What culture is, and isn’t

Culture, when you think about it, is simply the sum of all the behaviours of everyone in your business.

It is not ‘how we do things round here’. That’s about systems and processes.

And it’s not about purpose either. Purpose is ‘why we work here’. That’s about motivation.

The moral? Keep it simple. Focus on behaviour.

Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2016 – Why culture is the hottest trend in business today (March 2016)


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