Taking the ‘Fuzziness’ out of Culture

6 min read
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“People don’t experience your values; they experience your behaviours.”

Chris Jones – CEO, BMJ

Most organisations today recognise the importance of culture in driving results, achieving competitive advantage and maintaining a clear and coherent identity. Yet how many have appropriate management structures and measurement in place to know whether they have the culture they need? In a recent Culture Barometer report published by Coode Associates, a culture consultancy, they found that 100% of organisations recognised the importance of culture, yet only 8% felt they had the ‘right’ culture for them – quite a gap. What’s getting in the way?

Each organisation’s cultural needs and existing dynamic are unique to them (making benchmarking inherently difficult), but we come across a consistent set of mindsets and beliefs that act as barriers that get in the way of a more tangible and practical approach to managing culture:

  • Aiming for a ‘good’ culture, where everyone is happy. Whilst the elimination of negative and unacceptable behaviours is always desirable, the problem is that defining what a ‘good’ culture means is highly subjective, allowing individuals to self-determine what it means to them (creating a variety in expectations and resulting tensions)
  • ‘We have our culture statements defined and on the wall – isn’t that enough?’. Many organisations stop after defining their desired culture, mistakenly thinking that posters, mugs and mouse mats, coupled with a one-off communication will be sufficient for people to properly ‘get it’.
  • A belief that you can’t measure culture. This is common amongst a large cohort of leaders, preventing any attempt to either describe or measure culture in a rigorous and ongoing way.
  • Thinking that tracking engagement is the same as measuring culture. With employee engagement platforms becoming ubiquitous many organisations already believe they are measuring culture. If you understand engagement scores as an aggregation of individual sentiment and define culture as collective behaviours (how work gets done), you can start to see the gap and the limitations of engagement platforms in providing insight into culture. If you see engagement as an outcome of culture, not an input (as we do) the problem with this approach becomes even clearer.
  • Culture being treated as a stand-alone topic, not being integrated into an organisation’s strategy, operating philosophy and identity – the latest ‘initiative of the day’.
  • Most organisations feel over-surveyed. We blame Survey Monkey. The increase in survey frequency has not been accompanied with a corresponding rise in insight, however. DIY surveys lack the rigor, repeatability and trend analysis that is so important in tracking behaviours over time.
  • Culture is delegated to HR. Having been told their whole career that leadership is all about effective delegation, CEOs think that it’s right to delegate culture. It’s not – culture cannot be delegated and should be one of the few things that CEOs spend their precious time personally shaping and leading.
  • A reliance on company ‘Values’.  Ah, yes … values. Having a set of values has become an expectation for organisations, but how often do they really inform and guide behaviour, much less describe how an organisation actually operates? As one of our clients eloquently put it: “People don’t experience your values; they experience your behaviours.” Values often describe a vague identity, rather than any practical description of culture, preventing any meaningful measurement.

Do any of these sound familiar to your organisation? Can you tick off more than one?

A mix of the above factors leads to a common frustration in board rooms today that, on the one hand it is accepted that getting the culture right is seen as vitally important to their organisation’s performance and any successful transformation, whilst on the other there is a lack of frameworks and measures that allow culture to be objectively described and rigorously managed.

This gap is exacerbated with the shift to remote and hybrid work. In the past, culture could be absorbed and maintained through regular physical contact in the office with colleagues and managers, supported by the physical environment of the office. This allowed a reasonably implicit approach to culture, and an emphasis on ‘fit’, which is no longer adequate where physical interactions are reduced and the office plays a lesser role in shaping the interactions within an organisation.

This all presents a compelling case for an alternative approach to thinking about, managing and measuring culture. One that guides organisations to:

1. Describe culture in terms of collective behaviours (how work gets done), not values or individual preferences.

2. Define your target culture in clear, distinct terms; linking it explicitly to strategy, operating model and legacy DNA in a way that creates an integrated strategic narrative and identity.

3. Actively and regularly and consistently communicate your target culture, along with the expectations of everyone in the organisation. The organisation will be watching closely as to how seriously the leadership takes culture and will judge whether any personal responsibility for change can be safely ignored.

4. Regularly measure your actual culture to form an ongoing analysis of where the organisation is today, versus the target (this gives you a measurable ‘Culture Gap’, which the successful organisations are constantly working towards reducing).

5. Recognise that the leadership team needs to take personal responsibility for leading the culture both in what they say and what they do. If the top team are not seen to make it a priority and change their own behaviours, nobody else will be prepared to take the risk.

6. Measure and incentivize managers at all levels on their personal leadership of culture and the closing of the Culture Gap in their area of responsibility.

7. Align all supporting processes, systems and practices in the organisation in a way that supports and reinforces the behaviours and underpinning belief systems you need. As we have seen with the recent travails at CBI in the UK, if you don’t reflect your desired values and culture into your recruitment or performance management processes you will get caught out. The CBI president Brian McBride, is quoted saying that the organisation had paid “more attention to competence than to behaviour.” – very telling.

It’s also worth pointing out that organisations have for a long time measured their financial health through commonly-used accounting principles (GAAP), rules and frameworks, however no such equivalent exists for culture. This gap is especially stark given that the normal financial metrics measure past performance (the equivalent of driving a car whilst looking in the rear-view mirror), whilst understanding culture acts more of a predictor of future actions and results (driving by looking forward, through a windscreen).

“Culture15 has been a profoundly important element of transforming the business for both the short term, but perhaps more importantly, the much longer term.”

Miles Adcock – CEO, Concurrent Technologies Plc.

At Culture15, we have built a data and culture analytics platform that provides organisations a practical and robust framework to describe their desired culture and track how their current culture is moving towards that goal. Utilising numerous data feeds and lenses into collective culture (behaviours, trust, capabilities, etc.) it has been developed over more than 10-years of working with organisations to put culture at the heart of business performance. Its fundamental goal is to take the fuzziness out of culture and allow leaders at all levels to directly and actively measure the culture in their organisations. This is, after all one of the key tasks of leadership.

Culture15 is already in use with forward-thinking companies across 62 countries.

“Culture15 takes the fuzziness out of culture.”

Alex Smith – MD, Volkswagen Group UK

If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to reach out to the Culture15 at hello@culture15.com. We’d love to hear from you.

Culture15 is your complete toolkit for tracking culture change. CEOs and Exec Teams at world-leading organisations use Culture15 analytics to ensure success by aligning their culture with what they need to execute their strategy. If you’d like to find out how to define the culture and values you need, diagnose the culture you have and close the gap, talk to our team. 

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