Tag Archives: Culture assessment

Lesson 3: The Leader’s Culture Change Toolkit

Encouraging words for leaders who are trying to change their culture for the better.

Most leaders already have the fundamental skills required to effectively lead culture change. They are terrific problem solvers and action-oriented. When faced with a challenge, they shift into solution mode relying on personal experience and the advice of trusted colleagues and subject matter experts to identify the best approach for the situation. They search their bank of past successes and lessons learned to identify actions they believe will deliver the desired results. Many of these include behaviors, practices and systemic changes to structures, processes, policies and so on.
This is what Bill did so well as told in the story in Lesson #1. He used behaviors, practices, stories (remember the one about the cell phone and locking the CEO out of the meeting room for showing up late), structure and processes to create a more disciplined culture. In other words, he intentionally used the tools in his personal toolkit to achieve and sustain a significant change in culture.

The Personal Culture Change Toolkit

So, what is the leader’s personal culture change toolkit? Basically, it consists of the tangible elements of day-to-day life in an organization. These fall into two categories: people and environment. People tools refer to the actions that convey what is important and valued to individuals and teams. These are shared primarily through social interactions, such as observation and first-hand experience. The environment tools are the ‘systemic’ elements of the organization that determine the way people work and interact. These are important as their design can either support and encourage the desired behavior or create significant obstacles to adoption.

People Tools
The ‘people tools’ are the actions explicitly directed at influencing people. Behaviors and practices were introduced in an earlier chapter, so I’ll just provide a brief recap. Behaviors are the oft unconscious actions that we demonstrate in response to different situations. These actions send signals that tell others what is expected and, when the leader is influential, the best way to act. For this reason, it is important that leaders are self-aware and in touch with the ways that their words and actions are influencing others’ behavior and shaping the culture around them. Practices are the repeat patterns of activity or routines that leaders use as they go about their day-to-day work. They are different from processes which are the transformation of an input into an output. An example of a practice is the way you run meetings. If you run your meetings in a structured and disciplined manner, it sends a very different message than if your meetings are ad hoc and infromal. Thoughtfully using a mix of practices is an especially powerful strategy for reinforcing new behaviors and shifting culture.

Stories and Heroes
Stories and heroes refer to the telling of events involving people doing exceptional things. This is a powerful way to send a message about what is valued and important. They can be told in formal and informal settings and through a mix of verbal, written and visual media. The more stories about different people doing something that brings the values and desired behaviors to life, the better. The key is they must be authentic, credible and relatable.

Turtle in a bowl - company cultureThere is a great WestJet Airlines commercial that illustrates this beautifully (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5nfJ_u_8Ws). In the commercial, WestJetter Amanda helps a little girl and her family who find out they can’t bring her pet turtle on the plane. Her solution? She offers to look after ‘Steve’, the turtle, until they return from their vacation. The message is that Amanda is an owner and owners care, which is a core value of the company. This is just one of several videos showing employees going above and beyond to help their customers. It sends a clear message of what is important and valued to employees, customers and any one else who cares to listen. By the way, if you want to really understand your culture, ask people to tell stories about the company at its best and its worse. It is amazing what you will uncover.

Traditions and Rituals
Traditions and Rituals are a forum to celebrate the things that really matter. While common in families and religions, they can also be found in organizations usually taking the form of a special event such as a family picnic, annual profit-sharing celebration or Christmas party. To be considered a tradition or ritual, they must be meaningful and endure the test of time. An example is an annual family picnic that emphasizes the importance the company places on employees and their families, as well as the desire to nourish a sense of family and community within the company itself. If the picnic is only held once, it is a nice gesture. When it is a recurring event held for several years, it becomes a tradition.

Company Picnic - Corporate Culture

Traditions and rituals are usually established by founders and other senior leaders, however, leaders at lower levels can also do something meaningful but on a smaller scale. These events rarely become traditions as circumstances can change limiting their ability to endure over time (i.e., budget cuts, staffing changes etc.). Their power is in the potential to augment the global message by making it personal – this leader personally believes in the importance of family and creating a sense of community.
One of the challenges with traditions, and why it is important to be intentional in using them, is they become part of the company’s identity and embedded in the tacit employment contract. As a result, discontinuing a tradition, such as the family picnic, sends a strong, usually negative, message to employees. This is regardless of how good the reasons and how effective you are communicating them. In the end, employees interpret discontinuing the picnic as the company no longer values employees and their families. They point to other things the company is spending money on as evidence that leaders could continue the picnic but are choosing to do otherwise. This is why cost-cutting initiatives that target these types of events should be carefully considered and the consequences evaluated before taking action. In the end, the long-term impact of cutting the family picnic may far outweigh the short-term benefits.

Environment Tools
Environment tools are the elements of an organization that create the conditions to encourage and sustain new values, behaviors and practices. My favorite way to explain this is to consider what it takes to successfully lose weight. I can change my behavior by modifying my eating habits and going to the gym on a regular basis. I can adopt new practices such as weighing myself weekly, tracking my food intake and attending group support meetings. However, if my kitchen cupboards contain my favorite high-calorie snacks and the gym is 45 minutes from home, chances are sooner or later I am going to fall off the bandwagon. The same thing happens in organizations when leaders articulate new values and expected behaviors but don’t make the environmental changes required to support them. Even when significant time, money and attention is invested in initiatives such as communication and training, a lack of aligned structures, processes, policies and so on sends conflicting messages that discourage change and reinforce existing behaviors.
Now, you might be thinking, these are tools that only leaders in senior positions can use. The truth is every leader, regardless of level, can use the environment tools. However, the scope and scale depends on the leader’s role, responsibilities and level of authority. For example, senior leaders are accountable for the overall design of the organization’s structure providing direction including boundaries and limitations for lower level design efforts. Mid-level managers apply these parameters in designing the structure of their area of responsibility and lower-level managers to the design of their teams. The same applies to processes, policies, systems, space and symbols.

Structure determines who does what and how decisions are made in pursuit of an organization’s goals. It involves the design of roles, responsibilities, reporting relationships and authority levels. This includes temporary governance structures, such as advisory boards and management committees, as well as team structures. Structure has a powerful effect on culture influencing the ways people work and interact within and across levels, teams, business units, functions and geographies.
As an example, organization structures tend to fall somewhere between hierarchical or mechanistic and organic or flat and can take various forms depending on the company’s operating model. Hierarchical structures tend to provide a clear chain of command however, they can contribute to bureaucracy and slow decision-making. In many hierarchical structures, business units operate independently which means collaboration between groups can suffer. On the other hand, flat structures use teams to respond and adapt quickly to challenges and opportunities which is critical in dynamic external environments. While this allows for faster decision-making, it can lead to confusion and inefficiencies especially as an organization grows. If the teams operate independently, which is often the case, there is also the potential for redundancies and breakdowns in collaboration.

The way functional reporting relationships are designed also affects culture. Specifically, are the functions, such as Sales, Finance and Human Resources, centralized or decentralized? Do the functions report directly to the business units or are they operating as shared service centers providing support to the business units? Perhaps they report directly to a Corporate executive and indirectly to the business units as is common in a matrix structure, or maybe functional roles are fully integrated into project teams as in a flat structure. This is important because the functions own many of the processes and policies that determine the way things get done and thereby affect culture. In some organizations, this includes acting as a ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure consistency and manage risk. Anyone who has had to go through multiple steps to get Legal approval for a contract or business deal knows how this affects culture. Talk about bureaucracy!
While the above examples are part of the senior leader’s toolkit, managers can also use structure to intentionally shape culture albeit not to the same extent. Managers and team leaders typically decide who does what and how employees are going to work together to deliver expected outcomes. For example, in transactional roles such as Accounts Payable and Receivable, jobs are usually designed with efficiency of task completion a priority. This results in discrete roles with very structured job descriptions that offer little flexibility or opportunities for personal growth. The culture, at least within this team, places a high value on normative practices such as process consistency and compliance, as well as orderliness and attention to detail. While this might make perfect sense for the Accounts Payable and Receivable department, the same structure applied to a team of Software Engineers tasked with developing new products would be a disaster. For this team to be productive, the culture needs to encourage collaboration, experimentation (including making mistakes), flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness, as well as execution and results. Rather than narrowly defined roles and job descriptions with clear task allocation, a loose and flexible team structure is a much better option.

Systems, Processes and Policies
Systems, processes and policies (“the system”) are the guidelines and integrated methods and procedures that define how work is to be performed and people are expected to behave. This includes boundaries and limitations, as well as best practices. In my experience, a lack of alignment between “the system” and desired behaviors is one of the most common obstacles to culture change. This is notwithstanding the fact many organizations do a good job aligning Human Resource processes and policies to support desired behaviors.
Talent acquisition and management processes, performance management systems, competency models, employee training and manager development programs, as well as rewards and recognition programs,  are some of the tools typically used to encourage specific behaviors and help change culture. I emphasize ‘help change’ versus ‘change’, as Human Resources processes and policies on their own are rarely sufficient to achieve the desired results. This is not to say they aren’t important or relevant. They are. The point is that most organizations stop here and don’t make the necessary changes to other parts of the system.
Pretty much every organization has functional groups such as Sales, Legal and Finance. Even small companies have an overarching system of controls to ensure fiduciary, regulatory and legal compliance, at a minimum. As organizations grow, the role of the functions tends to expand and with it their influence over day-to-day work. The need to reduce waste and lower costs, increase efficiency and effectiveness, and reduce risk are just a few of the drivers behind this shift. Now, you might be asking what does this have to do with culture? The answer is a great deal; every function has policies, procedures and processes that affect the way things get done, otherwise known as culture.
Take for example an organization that needs to become more agile in order to compete in an increasingly dynamic and unpredictable marketplace. By increasing agility, the company should be able to respond quickly and adapt to changing circumstances, which is a must in this type of environment. Now, let’s say this same organization is a large, mature global company that insists employees comply with restrictive Finance, Legal and Human Resource policies and procedures when making decisions. For instance, there are strict limits on spending reinforced by delegation of authority (DOA) policies and a rigorous expense approval process. All contracts regardless of the cost, including rental of off-site meeting rooms, require multiple layers of Legal review and approval. Furthermore, senior executives must sign off on all new hires and promotions per Human Resource policies. This isn’t exactly a system designed to foster agility. In fact, some might (and do) call it downright bureaucratic.
How successful do you think the culture change effort will be if these and other relevant policies, processes and procedures remain the way they are? It will fail…100% guaranteed. Even if Human Resources does a terrific job defining the desired behaviors and embedding them in their processes and programs, the change effort will be for not. There is simply too great a disconnect between the desired behaviors and the system. For the company to become more agile, it must make substantial changes to these and other elements of the system at both the macro and micro level.
While the above is an example of the macro level system in action, managers and team leaders play a critical role in identifying the required macro and micro level changes. They work most closely with front-line employees and understand the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day performance of work. If an organization needs to be more agile, it is the lower level managers and front-line employees who can identify the specific changes required to align the system in support of the desired behaviors. Simply asking them what is stopping them from being agile (of course, supported by a clear description of what this means) is guaranteed to elicit useful information about obstacles and potential solutions.

Space refers to the design and use of the physical workplace. It includes micro spaces such as individual and team workspaces; shared spaces such as meeting rooms, cafeterias and collaborative work areas; outdoor spaces such as parking lots, gardens, courtyards and sports fields; and, macro spaces such as building and campus floor plans. Every one of these spaces has the potential to help build and shape culture at the same time as it supports strategy execution and the effective completion of work.

Man working alone in a cubicle - company cultureLet’s say, for example, leaders have identified the need to increase creativity and generate more good ideas in support of innovation. How can the design and use of physical space help or get in the way? Consider for a moment a traditional office building floor plan comprised of walled offices for managers and cubicles for non-managers. These are connected by a hallway that wraps around the central elevator core and stairwell. There are a few meeting rooms located off the hallway also at the core. These are equipped with standard furnishings and decor, such as a table and chairs, speakerphone, screen and projector with computer connections and a few pictures on the walls. Also located at the core are washrooms and a shared supply room that serves a dual purpose providing vending machines that dispense snacks, drinks and coffee. Sound familiar? Space is expensive so companies try to use it as efficiently as possible. This might be fine if people need quiet spaces to focus on their work and complete tasks. However, it is hard to see how this would inspire creativity and idea generation.

Corporate Culture Strategy

Now, contrast this with a workspace specifically designed for this purpose. Perhaps you envision a Google-type workplace where the design of space encourages people to come together to interact, play and have fun. Alternatively, maybe you’re thinking of war rooms, coffee shops, team layouts, movable walls, learning labs or other spaces designed with creative collaboration in mind. There are lots of options. The art and science is in the intentional design of space to serve a purpose and fit the people and work they are doing. This purpose can and should include building or changing culture in support of your strategy and goals. While space used in isolation of other tools is not enough to change culture, intentional design can help accelerate change, encourage new behaviors and reinforce values.

Symbols are the tangible objects or artefacts that we encounter in the workplace. They include signs, awards, product samples, photos, wall murals and basically anything we can see or touch. Their power is in the meaning they hold for the observer, which can be different depending on the context and person. For example, the image at right is a photo of a poster hanging on the wall of a meeting room at a Toronto Public Relations firm. Take a close look. What is the meaning of the poster?

Hand print artwork - Company culture
Perhaps you thought the following:

  • They are obviously ‘creative’ (and have too much time on their hands)…yep, this was someone’s answer.
  • The hands look like they are from members of a team who probably did something special, hence the ‘High Five’ at the top.
  • Several hands are small, so it is a team made mostly of women.
    The different colors symbolize diversity. Diversity of background, experience and thought is important.
  • People signed their names below their hands, so they recognize not just the team but each team member’s contribution.

The real story behind the poster, as provided by the firm owner, is it is a celebration of the contribution each person makes to the success of the firm. By working together and learning from each other, they create outstanding solutions that are recognized by their clients and the industry (they’ve received multiple industry awards which are displayed in the entrance lobby). Every person brings something unique that makes a difference and continues even after they leave. This is captured in the names beneath the handprints, many of whom are people no longer with the firm. The lesson is that objects and artefacts can be powerful tools for reinforcing values, sharing memories and shaping culture. However, it is important to remember that people can interpret things differently, which means the meaning you intend may not be what is received.
I encountered this recently while being escorted on a tour of a Corporate Headquarter building. Just off the lobby, in a high traffic area, was a wall covered floor to ceiling with a mural depicting the history of the company. Impressed, I commented on some of the themes I noticed such as its longevity, the continuity of leadership and commitment to organic growth versus acquisitions. It seemed to me to suggest an organization that is proud of its heritage, as well as somewhat cautious but has been able to adapt as the world changes. The Director escorting me paused, looked at the mural, looked at me and said, most employees view the mural as company propaganda intended for customers. All the things I say may be true, but employees see the mural as a symbol of resistance to change, out-of-touch leadership, risk aversion and bureaucracy. To them, the company is stuck in the past, whereas it should be focused on the future. Sure, there is a message about the company being a survivor and overcoming challenges, but recent experience is raising questions regarding its ability to change fast enough to be viable in today’s marketplace.
This brings up another important point. There must be congruence between the symbol and people’s experience for it be an effective tool. Symbols can be aspirational, but they must be real and authentic. For example, a company that launches a campaign using events, programs and artefacts to encourage employee engagement would be ill-advised to do so when they are laying off people. Similarly, I encountered a good example recently when visiting a manufacturing site. One of the first things I saw when I entered the building was a sign stating, ‘Safety First – Safety is Everyone’s Responsibility’. Next to it was a large scoreboard itemizing the previous quarter’s performance on key safety indicators. This included the number of incidents, days lost due to accidents, and the number of near misses. This looked great. Obviously, the company is serious about safety, right?
The problem is that, throughout my visit, I saw numerous safety violations starting with me being allowed on the floor without the appropriate gear. What message does this send to employees? For symbols to be effective in building and changing culture they must be meaningful, clearly explained and consistent with people’s lived experience. If not, they can serve to damage the change effort and the leader’s personal credibility.

In Summary

Most culture change initiatives focus on defining values and expected behaviors, which are communicated to managers and employees with the expectation they will demonstrate these behaviors in their work and interactions. Recognizing that telling people to behave differently usually doesn’t produce results, most organizations embed the expected behaviors in Human Resource programs, policies and processes, such as talent acquisition and performance management systems. Some even offer training programs to teach managers how to role model and change behaviour. Yet, these efforts only scratch the surface when it comes to the tools available to change culture.
As we know, engaging leaders is critical for any change effort to be successful. This is especially true in the case of culture change. Every leader influences culture through their words and actions as they go about their day-to-day work. The behaviors they demonstrate, practices they use, stories they tell and traditions they establish serve to reinforce what the organization, and they personally, believe is important and valued. By using these people tools in an intentional manner, leaders set clear expectations for behavior that are reinforced in people’s day-to-day experience. Even better, when they align the work environment by making relevant changes to structure, processes, policies, space and symbols, they create the conditions for the new behaviors to take root and flourish.
The exciting thing is leaders already have access to the tools they need to drive culture change. They are using them now as they go about their work and interact with people. The problem is leaders aren’t aware of these tools or, if they are aware, don’t know how to use them in an intentional manner to change culture. This creates a huge opportunity for most organizations. Instead of taking years, culture change can occur in months by helping leaders learn how to use their personal toolkit and align their efforts to achieve a shared vision of the future.

Dr. Nancie Evans
Dr. Nancie Evans is co-founder and VP Client Solutions at Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. specializing in the alignment of organizational culture and strategy. She has developed a unique set of leading-edge diagnostic tools and approaches that provide leaders with deep insights into the culture of their organizations, how it is supporting or getting in the way of strategy execution, as well as the levers that they can use to drive rapid culture change.

Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. is a leading culture and executive leadership consulting firm conducting groundbreaking work in leveraging culture to drive strategy and performance. Its suite of culture surveys and culture alignment tools are used by market-leading organizations around the world.

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Additional Problems with the Use of Benchmarks

Additional Problems with the Use of Benchmarks

This is the third and final part of our series about why companies should be careful with benchmarks.

Effective Cultures are Contextually Appropriate

An organization’s performance is affected by the extent its culture is contextually appropriate and aligned to strategy. A contextually appropriate culture acknowledges the importance of industry, but also reflects market dynamics, societal values, leadership, organization size, life cycle stage, governance structure, M&A history and other factors in determining norms, values and beliefs.

Societal values, for instance, have a greater influence on culture than industry norms. This means there is no such thing as a global, industry-specific culture.

It also recognizes the critical role that culture plays in enabling strategy execution and in turn, the effect that strategy has on cultural norms and behaviors. While organizations in the same industry may have some cultural attributes in common, differing strategies mean their cultures are distinctive in other significant ways. For example, all companies in the regulated airline industry require a normative culture due to the importance of safety and reliability of operations.

However, companies such as Frontier Airlines and Spirit compete on price, which requires a culture that emphasizes consistency and efficiency of operations evident in a strong process and task orientation. At the same time, Emirates and Singapore Airlines have built their brand on the promise of a special, consumer experience. This is achieved, in large part, by providing a personal touch in every customer interaction, which requires a high engagement culture that is people-oriented, flexible and adaptive.

Similarly, an organization that strives to differentiate itself from competitors through product innovation requires a different culture than one that aims for excellence in the customer experience or reliability of its operations.

Culture Benchmarks Reinforce the Status Quo

Organizations that have the good fortune to operate in a stable environment don’t have to worry about changing their culture. As long as they continue to perform and achieve their goals, the culture can and will remain unchanged. For an organization to thrive, and even survive, in a dynamic environment, it must be adaptive; able to anticipate and respond effectively to change on a continual basis.

Emerging technologies, the entrance of new and/or non-traditional competitors, shifts in customer expectations and other evolving market dynamics demand new and different ways of thinking and operating.

In many cases, the assumptions and beliefs that once helped the organization succeed become barriers to progress and change. As a result, the culture an organization has today is unlikely to be what it needs for the future. In these environments, comparisons to others in the same industry add little if any value.

In fact, instead of helping to improve performance, benchmarks create the risk of perpetuating the status quo and in so doing undermine efforts to adapt and change. If evidence is needed, look no further than popular management books such as Bossidy, Charan and Burck’s (2002) Execution and Collins’ (2001) Good to Great. Many of the organizations cited as examples of the cultures that others should aspire to, ended up struggling or outright failing.

Culture is Dynamic and Systemic

Organizations are living systems in that all of their elements are interconnected and work together to fulfill their purpose and mission. Culture affects and is affected by strategy, structure, policies, processes, physical space and so on. Cultural attributes cannot be viewed as separate components operating in isolation of each other or other elements of the broader system.  

It is the rich combination of all of the cultural attributes, and other elements of the system, working together in a dynamic and organic manner that makes each and every organization’s culture unique.

This is what makes culture so “sticky”. It is embedded in all aspects of the organization system. Yet, industry benchmarks by design treat cultural attributes as independent variables. This can lead to actions to close the gap on a specific attribute, without considering its connectedness to other aspects of the culture or the organization system as a whole. The result is unintended and potentially detrimental consequences impacting culture and performance.

Let’s say, for example, an organization discovers it is below the industry benchmark on process-orientation (emphasis on how work gets done). As a result, an action plan is developed to document core work processes, eliminate exceptions, simplify work and implement a disciplined approach to process change management.

However, for decades, employees have been taught that processes are bureaucratic encumbrances impeding delivery of the customer experience. This is firmly entrenched in the organization’s belief system and is evident in the way people work and interact. For the process improvement initiative to be successful, it must reconcile this conflict in an explicit way that is embraced by the organization.

This includes looking at the culture holistically and addressing competing norms such as tendencies for groups to work in isolation and to allow people to deviate from the standard process. If this does not happen, it is highly unlikely that change efforts will be successful or sustained.

Closing Thoughts

An assumption implicit in the use of industry benchmarks is the premise that organizations should strive to develop a culture that is similar to that of others within the industry. But what if an organization is striving to be different and stand out from its competitors or there is a new entrant with a different paradigm about the way to do things? If culture is truly a potential source of differentiation, what is the value in being the same as every other organization in the industry? Does Uber desire to have the same culture as a traditional taxi or limousine company?

Instead of asking how our culture compares to others in our industry, there are two questions leaders should ask:

  • Do we have the culture we need to execute our strategy, achieve our goals and fulfill our purpose?
  • Do we have an adaptive culture that allows us to anticipate and respond effectively to change?


A culture assessment can help leaders answer these questions by providing a common language and frame of reference to anchor discussions. It can also reveal culture strengths which can lead to insights regarding the organization’s deeply embedded belief system. It should not circumvent the dialogue required to build shared understanding and alignment that leads to meaningful action which is a very real danger inherent in the use of industry benchmarks.  

Culture-Strategy Fit can work with you. When you want to quantify your culture, contact us.

The Problem with Industry Benchmarks

The Problem with Industry Benchmarks

The bottom-line is benchmarks and benchmarking, while not necessary, can be helpful when used as a starting point for a deeper exploration of culture and its implications for strategy and performance.

Specifically, a framework of culture attributes provides a common language and structure. This allows people to share perspectives and make explicit the underlying beliefs, values and assumptions that are the foundation of culture.  

In doing so, they develop a shared understanding of why things are the way they are, which opens the door to explore the changes required to align culture and strategy and improve performance. It also enables groups and organizations to engage in meaningful dialogue about their similarities and differences. This leads to more effective working relationships, such as those required in mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures, and global operations.

The problem is that using benchmarks in this way runs contrary to common management practice. Common practice is to assume that a gap indicates a problem; the larger the gap, the greater the problem and higher the priority for action.

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true when it comes to culture, which by its nature is complex and highly nuanced. There may actually be very good reasons for the gaps, such as competitive differentiation or deeply embedded values, that leaders would be well advised not to change.  

In fact, there are a lot of reasons not to use benchmarks, which although appealing are dangerous and should be avoided.

Leaders Are Biased Towards Action

More and more, leaders are under pressure to deliver results with fewer resources. Many, if not most, spend their entire day in meeting upon meeting with little time for thought or reflection. To make matters worse, culture and culture change is complex and not an area of expertise for most leaders. This means that related discussions take time and effort while competing with the myriad of other urgent matters requiring leaders’ attention.

A culture assessment that identifies gaps so decisions can be made in an expeditious manner provides a very appealing alternative. The problem is that, in so doing, leaders make significant assumptions about causality that can lead to wrong decisions and actions that harm, or at best, add no value. For this reason alone, leaders are better served to avoid comparisons to industry benchmarks and focus on culture alignment to strategy with the objective of competitive differentiation.

Organizational Cultures aren’t ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’

Cultures aren’t ‘good or bad’, contrary to what is inferred by industry benchmarks. They serve a purpose and ‘stick’ because they make sense and have helped the organization succeed. Cultures reflect the shared values, beliefs and assumptions of members regarding the correct and best way to do things in order to achieve an organization’s goals and fulfill its purpose.

The problem is that nothing stays the same. Changes in the internal and external environment require new and different strategies and ways of working that challenge existing belief systems. To remain competitive and produce results, an organization and its culture may need to change. This doesn’t mean the current culture is “bad”; it just needs to be different in some, specific ways. As a matter of fact, best practice studies indicate that building on existing culture strengths while at the same time questioning assumptions is the most effective approach to achieving sustained change.

Culture is Complex and Nuanced

Culture is complex with tonalities and nuances that make every organization wonderfully unique. At a macro level of measurable culture attributes, an organization may appear to be similar to others and yet be very different in terms of the lived experience.

It can also have characteristics in common with others in its industry yet differ on several attributes and in subtle ways that are critical to its identity and success. This is one reason why benchmarks, while informative, can be dangerous.

As a statistical measurement tool, they do not capture the subtleties of culture, the dynamic interplay between different aspects of culture and other elements of the organization system, or identify underlying beliefs and assumptions that are the foundation of culture.  

If you have any questions about creating a winning culture, contact us at Culture-Strategy Fit. We will discuss this topic further in the next post.

Strategies for Shaping Culture Part 3

Strategies for Shaping Culture Part 3

In our prior two Strategies for Shaping Culture blogs we discussed three strategies that lay the foundation for shaping culture for future success and two strategies that accelerate it. This leaves the question of how to sustain changes to culture so that early attempts don’t fizzle out. This blog discusses six ways to support, embed and sustain culture development so culture is continually being shaped to fit strategy and goals.

6. ALIGN THE ORGANIZATION SYSTEM – Support desired behaviors

Architect structures, processes, and artifacts to reinforce behaviors For new behaviors to take root, a work environment is needed where these are supported and positively reinforced. To expect otherwise is unrealistic. For example, if there is the expectation that people will make decisions that benefit other groups but at times negatively impact their own department, then the right goal setting, measurement and reward structures need to be in place to support this. Identifying the elements of the ‘system’ that support and impede the desired behaviors is the first step. Taking action to align these elements with a focus on those that are most critical for adoption and sustained change is an essential part of any enterprise culture development plan.

7. MAKE IT DESIRABLE – Tap into intrinsic satisfaction

Use positive feedback Most people want to do well, put in a good day’s work and be proud of their achievements. Research shows that people have a powerful desire to do what is right and want to hear that they are on the right track from their manager and particularly their colleagues on a regular basis. Build in lots of feedback loops. For example, to close the weekly team meeting, ask who needs to be recognized for demonstrating behaviors important to the desired culture. Allow time for people to learn about the behavior and how it was applied. Build pride in individual and team accomplishment. Research reveals that people whose work requires conceptual thinking are motivated by purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Help people tap into these three powerful factors for intrinsic motivation. For example, you might realize that the new behavior is going to create some pain before it becomes a habit. Make mastery fun by creating a game around it, increasing individual and team targets over time, posting daily results and having some friendly competition across groups. What could be an unpleasant learning situation can become a source of pride in individual and team achievement.

Build pride in individual and team accomplishment Research also reveals that people whose work requires conceptual thinking are motivated by purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Help people tap into these three powerful factors for intrinsic motivation. For example, you might realize that the new behavior is going to create some pain before it becomes as Make mastery fun by creating a game around it, increasing individual and team targets over time, posting daily results and having some friendly competition across groups. What could be an unpleasant learning situation can become a source of pride in individual and team achievement.

Conduct culture pulses Conduct regular short culture pulse surveys focused on culture priorities and share the data. Give groups their results. While this provides reinforcement that positive actions are making an impact and guidance and where to focus on next, it also leaves nowhere to hide for those groups who are opting out of the change.

Align recognition and rewards Keep recognition simple, local and targeted at a demonstration of desired values and behaviors. When extrinsic rewards are needed to accelerate culture change, focus on the outcomes desired (delivery of goals and targets).

8. MAKE IT PERSONAL – Tap into values

Talk about the link to personal values Most culture development efforts rely on personal and group motivators and let the value of personal experience with desired behaviors reinforce new ways of doing things. At times, however, there are people who are uninterested in the behaviors or resist changing their beliefs. In this case, connecting the desired behavior to an individual’s personal values can be a powerful means of helping them see how this can be positive for them. Have discussions with such individuals around organization purpose and how their personal values connect to this. Talk about what they want personally, long-term, from their lives and allow them to make their own links between desired and current behavior. Refrain from lectures or advice as this is unlikely to change thinking; this must be a dialogue. If there is no alignment between personal values and the desired culture, behavior change will be difficult to sustain.

9. NO EXCEPTIONS – 100% consistency, no excuses

Demand consistency Reinforce adoption of new behaviors and practices and demand 100% consistency – no exceptions and no excuses. Consistency builds trust and connectedness important for agility, collaboration, innovation, and productivity. When progress is slow, provide support such as coaching by the manager or an internal or external coach.

Address non-compliance As the saying goes, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Without consistency, groups cannot effectively work in concert and deal with complex emerging issues and inter-dependencies. Take action when needed with individuals whose behaviors weaken culture. While each leader got a chance at Ford, Mulally and his top leaders made tough people decisions in order to shape the culture year by year.

10. STORIES – Forget the PowerPoint presentation

Tell stories The best way to shape a culture is to have everyone experience what it is like. Immersion is great but too often this is not possible. Create a vicarious experience by telling about your own experiences. People do need to know two things: Will demonstrating these new behaviors be worth it? How does this apply to me? Get others to tell their stories Stories

Get others to tell their stories Stories to explore what the behavior feels like and create an empathetic reaction in the listener. We become gripped by what was on the person’s mind, the details of what it was really like and the results that were achieved. Encourage others to tell a complete story, making sure there is a clear link between the desired behaviors and the purpose and business outcomes desired. Draw out the storyteller to explain how specific behaviors brought better results. Let listeners work through the two big questions: Will it be worth it? Can I do it?

Use pilots Pilot significant changes and evaluate early behavior change to see if the behaviors are having an impact and create the outcome desired. Use early stories from these pilots to provide proof of gains ahead to those who have not yet bought into the culture change. From these, identify unintended consequences, barriers and/or gaps in support early so they can be addressed.

11. SKILLS & SUPPORT – Build competence and confidence

Build mastery New behaviors require learning which can be painful. Immerse people in demonstrating new behaviors frequently and stick at it for at least three months so habits form. At Ford, former CEO Mulally drove transparency and information sharing every day for years until everyone valued and demonstrated it.

Provide support Don’t forget about recovery support to help people get back on track when they drop new behaviors. Dig into what is impeding the desired behaviors. Leaders, peer coaches and external coaches are all social supports that can be part of gaining mastery and consistency. HR can play a key role in setting up networks of peer coaches and external coaches to support those trying hard to shift behaviors and practices.

These are some of the most powerful strategies that we have uncovered for shaping culture more intentionally for future success. If you have a strategy to share with our blog readers, feel free to comment.

Strategies for Shaping Culture Part 2

Strategies for Shaping Culture Part 2

In our previous blog, we talked about three strategies to start the process of shaping culture proactively to deliver strategy and goals. The first strategy, Create a Future Focus described the need to paint a picture of the future culture and how it will support long term success. The second strategy, Assess Your Culture, described the value of having a cohesive view around culture strengths and development needs that comes from a broad and deep assessment of culture through a culture survey or deep dive assessment of the way the culture operates to support strategy and goals. The third strategy, Set Culture Priorities, described the need to narrow the focus to one or two culture priorities for collective focus across the enterprise. These strategies are the foundation for a process that can accelerate and embed culture change much more quickly than previously thought.

This blog discusses the fourth and fifth strategies, Create Your Culture Playbook and Use the Amplifying Effect of Leader Behaviors, both of which accelerate culture change.


Engage one group at a time For Ford’s culture turnaround, former CEO Alan Mulally started with his Executive Team and then engaged Product Design. In most companies, the development of a playbook for strengthening the 1-2 culture priorities starts with identifying the practices, norms of behavior and beliefs that the Executive Team commit to work on for the coming months – their Culture Playbook. They then sponsor the development of Culture Playbooks with each of their leadership teams who then engage their own teams. In this way inter-connected Playbooks develop that reflect local practices and norms of behavior but align with enterprise priorities.

Use new practices to send signals that something needs paying attention to Changing a long established routine that is locking in the old culture and impeding development of new culture strengths can send signals across the organization. For example, at IBM in the 1990’s, monthly reports were cleansed of any incomplete or failed activities. Executives were in the dark. The reports were cancelled and replaced by a new, more transparent approach to monitoring that shocked many. At Ford, Mulally introduced a simple red, yellow, green scorecard for monitoring goals and then had the team work hard at reviewing progress using objective data, without blame fixing. Some changes to routines are signals, some are significant and create upheaval, while others support incremental change. Choose which strategy is needed knowing that transformational change does not come without pain.
Accelerate by focusing on high-leverage inter-related practices Use day-to-day practices and routines to encourage valued behaviors, beliefs and assumptions. For example, for a team wanting to improve execution discipline, this may mean having a Monday morning cross-departmental meeting (a practice) to coordinate work, a Friday team conference call to review progress (a practice) and a monthly feedback session (a practice) to discuss improvements that could be applied to next month’s work. Each of these managing practices focuses on the same two behaviors: being accountable and using constructive feedback, creating the opportunity to rapidly grow capability together. Consider inter-related changes to managing, operating, social or organizational learning practices that will lead to desired beliefs and behaviors.
Focus on the critical few Anyone who has tried to diet or become more fit knows how difficult it is to change habits and routines. Work with leaders and their teams to develop no more than 4-6 specific action strategies (see example above) for the coming three months. List week by week what this will look like in action. When it gets too complex, strip it down and make it more targeted. Roll the plans forward with weekly, monthly and quarterly check-ins. The result of this is a Culture Playbook that is owned by the team that they can measure progress against.

Provide support Working together on strengthening culture is something new for many groups. Facilitation support may be needed to help identify new kinds of practices and related behaviors and also work through beliefs and assumptions no longer relevant to the future, however, groups usually take ownership of managing their Playbooks quickly. Having a facilitator work with the team every three months on assessing progress, what was learned about culture development and what is next can also be valuable support to accelerate culture change.


Role model desired behaviors Like ripple effectives on a pond, leader behaviors shape the culture of the organization. Leader behavior tells us what is desired and valued. Help managers lead the way. Invest in leadership meetings, development programs and coaches to improve self-awareness and develop competencies to support the desired culture. This may be having panel discussions during which top leaders share what they are learning about a culture priority such as agility or collaboration, or a global webinar where different levels of employees share what they are doing differently, or team stories to download and discuss at meetings which demonstrate the desired culture in action.

Create a feedback rich environment Use self-assessment, round tables, surveys and feedback sessions to help people understand how their behaviors are perceived by others and what the consequences are of specific behaviors. Focus feedback on strengthening capability for the desired culture and specifically the culture priorities rather than generalities.

You’ll notice we haven’t talked about how to make your culture change stick. That’s our next blog. But if you want to shape your culture proactively, find one or two points in this blog to experiment with and get going!