Culture is a complex concept for managers and leaders to understand. It’s hardly surprising, even ‘experts’ have different views about just what it is.
Here are just a few of the definitions I found in a few minutes online:
- The way things are done around here
- The specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organisation that control the way they interact with each other and stakeholders
- A complex set of attitudes, beliefs, values, opinions, rules of behaviour, ideologies, habitual responses, language, rituals, quirks and other characteristics of a particular group
- An unconscious set of collective beliefs and assumptions steering values and through them the artefacts and actions of an organisation
- The deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organisation, that operate subconsciously and define in a ‘taken for granted’ fashion an organisation’s view of itself and its environment
However you choose to define it in your organisation, it shapes everything an organisation does and is the critical factor influencing success……or failure. There is an inextricable link between culture and performance. Culture either supports delivery of business strategy……or constrains it.
To reiterate – it dictates whether organisations succeed or fail. And that’s why organisations that cultivate their cultures have a competitive edge.
Interesting word cultivate. According to Wikipedia the word culture comes from the Latin cultura, stemming from colere, meaning ‘to cultivate’. And the dictionary definition is:
- “To bestow attention, care, and labour upon, with a view to valuable returns”
- “To direct special attention to; to devote time and thought to; to foster; to cherish.”
For me, it fits perfectly with culture. It means we can (and must) change culture so that it enables success – however, to do that we need to direct time and attention to it. We need to think about it, to work at it, cherish it so it grows in the direction we want.
So, if we’re going to cultivate culture, what should we do? I think we can learn from drawing some parallels with the sector where the word is more commonly used – Farming:
Step 1 – Planning
A farmer doesn’t plant his crop without planning it first. He/she thinks about his business plan, identifying what crops will deliver a yield that will deliver it. He looks at the map of his fields, thinking about what crop he’s going to grow in each, recognising the type of soil, the likely weather and temperatures, and what he’s grown successfully in recent seasons.
He prepares for the impact of pests, pathogens and weeds and then he produces the action plan – what needs to be done, and when.
The culture practitioner should follow a similar approach. He must understand the business strategy, its business plan, targets and objectives.
Because the sole purpose of the organisational culture is to support delivery of that strategy, he should have a ‘map’ of the organisation which describes the current culture in each part of it as well as a description of the desired future culture. (By implication, this means he has to have a methodology for defining culture.)
He must think about the actions that will progress culture towards the desired future state and consider the potential impact of internal and external influences. And then he must pull together the plan of actions i.e. what will be done and when.
Incidentally, planning is a cyclical process for the farmer, and it should be for the culture practitioner too.
Step 2 – Preparation & Planting
For the farmer this is the first stage of implementation of the plan. He understands the importance of preparing the soil to ensure it suits the crop. He’ll perhaps plough the field, he’ll consider plant spacing, time of seeding, and seeding depth. All because he knows these things influence the eventual yield of the crop.
And so it is with culture. A practitioner will consider how to create the conditions in which culture change can occur. He will think for example about how leadership and communications will need to support change. He’ll think about how the actions to be taken will be delivered, when and by whom – and then start delivery.
Step 3 – Feeding
The crop might grow quite well on its own without intervention but the farmer knows that if he wants to maximise the yield then he really should be giving it extra help. Just as humans could probably survive on a diet of bread and water but in order to thrive they need a broader diet with other nutrients, so it is for a healthy crop. And so the farmer will add nutrients to help the crop thrive.
Culture change too needs to be fed. Opportunities to support the changes desired need to be noticed and sometimes created. The positive elements need to be recognised and rewarded, leaders need to lead by example and communications need to spread the message of change and support the continuing journey.
Step 4 – Weeding
Growth of the crop might be affected by pests, pathogens or weeds. They all damage the plants. Pests for example are creatures that damage the crop, weeds are simply plants that are not wanted – or at least not wanted where they’re growing.
They tend to be naturally prolific, resilient and suited to local growing conditions: they’re survivors. Pathogens are agents that cause disease. And the farmer knows that if left alone they’ll damage the crop.
I suspect every organisation has its equivalents. Pests who damage culture change by behaving in a way that stops it. At the extreme, maybe there are some weeds, people who as a result of their behaviours just don’t ‘fit’ in the organisation.
Maybe they need to be ‘weeded out’. And the organisational equivalent of pathogens are the hidden and often unconscious beliefs which people within it hold and, which left unchanged, will damage the seedlings of change. The practitioner needs to be on guard against them all, ready to act to prevent their impact.
Step 5 – Harvesting
The farmer harvests the crop when it’s ripe and then sells it to the market, comparing the price achieved with the figures he included in his business plan. In other words he checks whether the benefits he anticipated from the crop were delivered – and if not, he’ll include that learning in his next plan.
Likewise the culture practitioner should periodically harvest. He should understand the change that has been delivered and the benefits it’s producing in terms of the key metrics of the organisation. And if they’re not what was anticipated, he’ll include that learning in the next phase of his culture plan.
Good luck cultivating your culture.
Tim Hadfield is managing director of culture development consultancy, Accord Engagement.
We welcome any and all contributions from the community, so please feel free to share your views and opinions with us, your colleagues and peers via our blogs section.