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  Shaping Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is a set of beliefs, symbols, rituals, narratives and language that that runs through an organization beyond the individuals, physical assets, systems and processes. Peter Drucker argued that it is the most critical aspect of an organization ("culture eats strategy for breakfast"). It emerges organically from the interactions between people and whilst it may be too intangible to be managed, its evolution can be shaped. Influencing corporate culture is one of the key roles of senior leadership. Drawing on a wide range of models, we can work with you to help understand the culture in your organization and help shape it.

In general, the best place to start is to use our generic Organizational Culture Assessment Tool to gain an overview. We can also help you engender more specific types of culture within your organization, as listed below, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Organizational Culture Assessment: This is a set of interviews and an online questionnaire which can provide a high level overview of the culture in your organization, and the sub-cultures within different groups. It draws on an eclectic mix of models and perspectives.

Organizational Culture Assessment.

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Part of the assessment is an online questionnaire to measure the important dimensions of culture within your organization. It draws on the work of, amongst others, Hofstede and the GLOBE project. The dimensions are:

  • Power versus Democracy: To what extent are power and status privileges endorsed?
  • Knowledge versus Practicality: To what extent does the organization pursue and expand knowledge?
  • Short-term versus Long-term: To what extent is work planned ahead?
  • Stability versus Change: To what extent does the group devote time to innovation?
  • Rules versus Discretion: To what extent is does the group comply with formal rules, regulations and procedures?
  • Perfectionism versis Pragmatism: To what extent is does the group focus on attention to detail?
  • Performance versus Egalitarianism: To what extent are performance and excellence rewarded?
  • Conflict versus Diplomacy: To what extent do people challenge or avoid conflict?
  • Tough versus Soft: To what extent is tough-mindedness and competitiveness valued versus kindness and generosity?
  • People versus Task: To what extent do people focus on achieving results versus maintaining good relationships?
  • Individualism versus Collectivism: To what extent is competitiveness valued versus group rewards?
  • Diversity versus Cohesion: To what extent do people seek to stand out as unique individuals versus subsuming their views as part of a group?

Important other aspects of the assessment include:

  • deep-dive interviews with staff at all levels, requesting views about the organization, stories, heroes etc.
  • observations of what people spend their time doing and talking about.
  • summaries of specific language and terminology used.
  • rituals and symbols; contrast in physical settings between different groups.
  • promotional material and internal organizational documents.
  • reward systems and promotion processes.
  • statistics related to gender, race, class and disability equity.

Results are presented at enterprise level. We can drill down into divisions to highlight differences and the emergence of sub-cultures. If the project is part of a culture change process we offer Culture Pulse, which is a more focused, bespoke survey, carried out at repeated intervals with the intention of tracking changes in cultural attitudes and values.

In addition to the Culture Survey we also offer Employee Engagement and Team online questionnaires.

Encouraging a Risk-taking, Entrepreneurial, Pro-innovation Culture: How can you step up a gear from 'business as usual' to create a dynamic, entrepreneurial, pro-innovation culture that is comfortable taking measured risks?

Encouraging a Risk-taking, Entrepreneurial, Pro-innovation Culture.

Image Risk Dial

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Some organizations may feel they have become overly bureaucratic or moribund. Such organizations are candidates for being replaced by disruptive upstarts.

In addition to gathering data, some examples of levers to create change are:

  • Setting up low-risk, small-scale prototypes and trials to test the water. These help to encourage a 'can-do' attitude. Trials which succeed can be scaled up.
  • Hiring new people to inject energy, new perspectives and different ways of working.
  • Making structural changes. Creating new teams focusing on new goals can breathe fresh life into an organization, as can breaking down silos.
  • Communicating the values and symbols of the desired new culture in a positive way. This has to come from the top as well as all levels. Successes need to be celebrated and problems need to be acknowledged and addressed.
  • Encouraging empowerment and autonomy. People need to be given the opportunity to take responsibility for certain decisions and use rules flexibly to adapt to circumstances.
  • Offering financial and intangible rewards to incentivise a less bureaucratic and risk-averse approach.

Encouraging a Financially Sustainable Culture: This refers to financially sustainable as opposed to environmentally sustainable (see below). In a sense this is the opposite of the style above. A culture which is cavalier with regard to risk and has too short-term a focus can pose a danger to an organization's survival, as seen in the 2008 financial crisis. We can help instil a culture which finds the right balance between measured risk-taking and prudent decision making.

Encouraging a Financially Sustainable Culture.

Skyscrapers in the mist.

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The stereotype of some financial organizations from the boom in the 2000s was a male-dominated, macho culture with vast rewards and few sanctions. Risky decision-taking, which resulted in unimaginably vast losses, was forgiven with multi-billion bail-outs by Governments. However, subsequent research has show that the 'get-rich-quick' 'greed-is-good' culture was only an aspect of the cultural problems that afflicted investment banks in the 2000s (i.e. the desire to make money was not the main problem). Many firms in sectors other than financial services have suffered from similar cultural issues.

So how do you tone down the risk without removing the entrepreneurial DNA? We can help you shape the culture. In addition to assessments, a small sample of approaches are:

  • Hiring more women is a start. But research has shown that women often leave such environments early as they are not happy with the ultra-competitive, socially exclusive, long hours culture. So other changes are also required.
  • Hire people from a more diverse set of backgrounds, including at senior levels.
  • Tone down the within-organization competitiveness.
  • Change the compensation structure to encourage sustainability.
  • Maintain better oversight of and stronger sanctions for unacceptable behaviour.
  • Actively discourage the long-hours culture.
  • Make greater use of algorithmic decision making to remove human bias, backed up by substantial back-testing.

However a thorough appraisal of the current situation is necessary before launching into solutions.

Encouraging a High Performance Culture: A high performance culture focuses on excellence. This means setting exacting standards in products, operations and hiring.

Encouraging a High Performance Culture.

Image of the Red Arrows (as an example of a High Performance Team).

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A high-performance organization seeks to excel at all levels. It seeks to create and maintain a brand image of excellence which is both internally focused and projects outward to customers.

We can help you on the journey to build that brand. Key considerations are:

  • Clarity of purpose - you need to know why you are providing your product or service and completely believe in it's value.
  • Clarity of goals - you need focus - you can't be excellent at absolutely everything.
  • Question everything - there is no room for false assumptions, complacency or false pride.
  • Hire the best people.
  • Communicate, demonstrate and live excellence in all you do.
  • Focus on every detail of the product or service to ensure it is the best it can be.

Encouraging a Safety Culture: In certain industries safety is critical. A safety mind-set has to be internalised by all staff. Yet it is possible to ensure compliance with regulations and best practice in order to prevent harm, and at the same time foster innovation and dynamism.

Encouraging a Safety Culture.

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We can help you diagnose the current situation and change the mind-set within your organization. Here is a sample of the approaches:

  • Ensure safety values are strongly communicated by leadership as a top priority.
  • Ensure efforts to improve safety are viewed as an investment rather than a cost (and sufficient resources are devoted to those efforts.)
  • Ensure everyone has the training and information they need.
  • Ensure everyone understands what is expected and puts the appropriate behaviours into practice. The behaviours need to be reinforced with a range of incentives.
  • Ensure transparency in reporting incidents. People should feel safe to raise concerns and empowered to take action.
  • Ensure a constant pursuit of improvements in safety (rather than defensiveness). Ensure lessons actually are learned.
  • Ensure effective operational communication and co-ordination.
  • Ensure common-sense, flexibility and taking context into account rather than demotivating people by blindly applying rules inappropriately.

Encouraging an Inclusive Culture: Despite good intentions too many organizations still embody inequities with respect to gender, race, disability and social class. Often this is implicit and the result of structure and process rather than overt prejudice but it has the same outcome. We can work with you to look at the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which organizations can fail to fully harness the talents of people from disadvantaged groups.

Encouraging an Inclusive Culture.

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One challenge is whether to focus exclusively on racial equity until significant progress has been made, or to additionally tackle other injustices at the same time e.g. gender, disability, social class etc. Too much focus on one injustice can leave others in place, unaddressed. Too little focus means progress becomes spread too thinly and dissipated. The answer has to be somewhere in between.

The key is to listen to a wide range of people, implement visible action, create an environment where people feel included and safe and communicate success.

We can help you with specific interventions such as:

  • Start at the top - ensure senior leaders receive hard-hitting training. However, change has to occur at all levels.
  • Ensure there is a high level group, with teeth, to champion and promote diversity and inclusion throughout the organization.
  • Constant communication.
  • Training at all levels.
  • Review all processes (hiring, promotions, performance assessment, complaints).
  • Set goals, measurable targets and monitor progress (e.g. in hiring and career progress).
  • Provide effective mechanisms for people to be able to raise incidents or concerns.
  • Devote effort into outreach and mentoring.

Encouraging an Environmentally Sustainable Culture: As we transition to a zero-carbon society - how can you accelerate that process within your organization?

Encouraging an Environmentally Sustainable Culture.

Image of wind power plant.

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Despite Governments making promises about a zero-carbon future by 2050 or 2030, it is possible for organizations to make faster progress towards that goal. Environmental sustainability is about more than reducing CO2 emissions. It is a pro-business mind-set based on efficiency, not wasting resources and not despoiling the natural world. It is about harnessing peoples' enthusiasm as well as changing assumptions. It means carrying out more sustainable processes and designing more sustainable products and services.

A framework we find useful is the Behaviour Change wheel. This is an approach to change management based on a systematic and comprehensive survey of organizational best practice and the academic literature. It describes the full range of potential interventions - from regulations to education and a process for selecting the best intervention for the type of behaviour change required.

A small sample of interventions:

  • Set green goals and targets and give feedback on progress.
  • Communicate essential information, maintain consistent positive messaging and use nudge to make it easier for people to be sustainable than wasteful.
  • Harness the enthusiasm and voluntary activism of vocal pioneers.
  • Engage everyone, encourage personal responsibility and embed new habits.
  • Ensure that meeting environmental goals is on the agenda of every team.
  • Invest in technology that has an impact.

Encouraging a Quality Culture: The ability to ensure customers have faith in your product or service is essential for commercial, public sector and third sector organizations. Over the years, although well established systems and techniques have been developed, ensuring Quality values are lived, by all staff, day to day requires a Quality Culture.

Encouraging a Quality Culture.

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Quality systems, with objectives, policies, documentation, audits etc. are now well understood. We can help you go beyond rule-based compliance and create a genuine quality culture. Just some of the most useful interventions are:

  • Leadership - ensuring a focus on quality is communicated and that leaders are visible and engaged.
  • Customer focus - ensuring you understand customer needs and priorities, engage in dialogue and proactively seek feedback.
  • Process focus. This requires systems thinking, imaginatively anticipating risk, and a keen interest in measurement and analytics.
  • Motivation. People must feel that quality is important. If it is important to the organization it will reward team members accordingly.
  • Empowerment. This requires everyone taking responsibility and management placing trust in employees. Quality is everyone's job.
  • Transparency, openness and feedback.
  • Team working.
  • Continual improvement - never being complacent, having a restless need to improve, being unafraid to take risks and innovate.

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Oxford Business Psychology 2022