In my last blog I wrote about how leaders must overcome siloed, parochial thinking in order to build a strong and productive organisational culture.  And I stated my view that it’s the role and responsibility of culture practitioners in organisations to help them do that.  The culture that organisations seek to achieve should be driven by  requirements from the business that culture needs to help deliver.  Each requirement can be seen as a piece in a jigsaw and all of the individual pieces combine to form the whole picture.

I said that in this post I’d focus on the key to actually making the jigsaw by fitting the pieces together.  However, I think it perhaps makes more sense to write first about the picture the pieces make when they are fitted together.  What is the picture on the box?  By the way, I’m indebted to Michael Stratford (keynote speaker, coach and MC – you’ll find him on LinkedIn) for posing some questions and stimulating my thoughts on this…..

I guess the first question on this topic is whether it’s a good idea to have a picture at all?  There are two sides to this argument.  On one hand, given that the competitive environment is changing so fast, is it possible to project ahead and vision the type of culture needed?  And is it desirable to do so when some employees might be very happy with the culture as it is right now?  And of course there’s also the argument that it’s just not possible to intentionally and deliberately shape culture anyway.

On the other hand, if you know that changing the culture will mean the organisation is better positioned to face the uncertainties of the future then doesn’t it make sense to change it?  The argument that the environment is changing so fast surely suggests a new cultural requirement – for agility and an enhanced willingness and capability for change.  The counter argument to employees not liking it is that, well, to be blunt, I believe the primary driver is organisational performance.  There’s little point having happy employees in an organisation that is failing.  The answer is always to support and enable people through the change.  And the counter argument to the doubt about whether it’s possible to shape culture is that it is.

I’m firmly in the camp that it is possible to shape culture and that the most successful organisations do just that.

The next conundrum is how clear the picture on the box needs to be in order to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together.  My short answer to this question is: "clear enough that you can head towards it without being so clear that you can see the picture in its entirety – because it’s not possible to do so".  Culture is difficult to describe at all so seeking absolute clarity on what future culture should be is even more difficult.  Continuing to focus on it beyond a certain point produces increasing frustration and diminishing returns.  An HR Director I worked with once described it like this: "To start with it’s enough to know that the destination is, let’s say the east coast of the US, not the Boston Light at the entrance to Boston harbour." 

What she meant was that it’s not necessary to specify the exact landing point at the outset, you can firm up on that when you’re underway.  What’s important at the outset is that the direction of travel is clear enough to enable the journey to start.

But how does the culture practitioner establish the picture at all, so that the journey can be started?  The answer to this takes me full circle back to my previous post.  It’s all about requirements, the requirements from the business that the organisational culture must support and help to deliver.  It’s therefore the culture practitioners responsibility to gather the requirements (the pieces of the jigsaw) and then put them together so that the picture starts to emerge and the direction of travel identified.  Whilst most people don’t build a jigsaw in this way, it’s the right way for culture.  It also perhaps explains why getting the culture picture is so tough – have you tried building a jigsaw without looking at the picture!

In my next post on this subject I will write about the process of fitting the various pieces of the jigsaw together.  In the meantime…..all thoughts welcomed and valued.

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