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Alan O'Neill: 'Your corporate culture renewal is a journey, not a destination'

It is high time organisations took a moment to gather the troops and ensure the whole team is playing as one

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Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to www.kara.ie

Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to www.kara.ie

Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to www.kara.ie

Last week, I talked about the importance of culture in an organisation. While every organisation has a culture, in my experience, most cannot articulate or describe it. And yet, it is the golden thread that weaves all aspects of an organisation together. It binds the strategy, leadership style, structure, reward system, behaviours, and indeed the whole business model. I would safely say almost every success or disappointment that you have experienced in your organisation can be attributed to culture in some way.

But most people when asked to describe their company's culture seem to have difficulty answering.

You'll often hear sound-bites like 'we have a blame culture', 'we have too many silos', 'the politics are horrendous', or 'we're very patriarchal'. You'll even hear positive ones like 'we're very focused on the customer', or 'we're entrepreneurial and disruptive'.

How would you describe the culture in your organisation or business unit? And would your work colleagues answer in the same way?

Do some colleagues behave in ways that are inappropriate, such as with disrespect or a lack of accountability?

Are your leaders good role models for what the culture should be?

If you and your colleagues cannot clearly articulate your desired culture, you're missing a key success factor.

In my travels around Ireland and across Europe, I'm pleased to say that organisational culture is a topic that has come more to the fore in recent years. As a change agent for 28 years, I find more companies are prioritising this than ever before. As the world continues to change at an unprecedented pace, your ability to cope, be relevant and compete effectively is rooted in your culture. All of this frenetic change causes 'rabbits-in-the-headlights' reactions for many. Some understandably turn to refreshing their strategy and structure.

That may well be appropriate, but I believe they're missing a trick if they have never defined their culture. It's high time organisations of all sizes took a moment to gather the troops and ensure that the whole team is playing as one.

Using Values to shape Organisation Culture

I watched the Ireland-Scotland rugby game last week and was truly inspired by the Irish performance. The communications between players, the trust and respect, the camaraderie and total focus on their vision were what struck me most. As you know, culture is often described as 'the way we do things around here'. And the Irish team's culture is strong, positive and consistent.

I've mentioned that I'm a strong advocate of using a values-centric approach to culture, because values determine how one should behave in given situations. This is a positive way of 'calling out' behaviours that will support your vision or those that will hold the organisation back.

Tips for Culture Renewal

Last week, I described a German company that made a number of acquisitions and is now renewing its culture to have one group culture. This one culture will serve as a framework for how people at all levels should behave, both internally and externally. Here is how we are doing that:

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1 Discover

Establish the gap between the desired culture and the current culture. This involves a combination of qualitative and quantitative research:

• Firstly, we visited several entities and interviewed a cross-section of people in their own offices, asking open questions about the current culture. We wanted their opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of how people and departments behave and interact.

• We interviewed selected customers and suppliers to get their objective and external input to add to our internal findings.

• Throughout this early phase, we identified recurring themes and issues that were positive or negative. We also identified some that were missing. For example, this is a business where ongoing innovation is critical and we were not hearing enough about that.

• We then designed and conducted tailored employee and customer surveys to scientifically test our findings.

• All of this helped us to get to grips with the good and bad of the current culture.

2 Design

Design a new set of values or guiding principles for the business, and plan for how they will be brought to life:

• We presented the findings to the executive team, taking time to get their full buy-in and commitment to act. We did this by illustrating the impact on future performance if left as is.

• Using evidence from the discovery phase, we prioritised a set of guiding principles. Some of those were determined by considering what cultural traits were missing. Others were nominated so as to address certain behaviours that needed to be called out (such as accountability).

• Instead of agreeing a set of typical words that you could download from a Google search, we agreed a set of guiding principles in the form of action statements. One of them is 'pull together', and the accompanying detail for that one describes the importance of collaboration and teamwork.

• Design a master action plan that integrates the new guiding principles into all human resources disciplines, processes and the reward structure.

3 Deliver

Roll out the new culture which, of course, will take years to embed:

• We organised an event to launch the values to the wider management team, followed by a series of events cascaded to all business units.

• The master action plan is being monitored by the internal steering group who make recommendations for corrective action when necessary.

4 Develop it by ongoing measurement and embedding it into a new way of working

The Last Word

Culture renewal is a significant piece of work that can't effectively be summarised in a column like this. My aim is to show that culture renewal is not a project, as projects after all have start and end dates.

Forgive me for being a little cliched when I say that culture renewal is a journey, not a destination.

Alan O'Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to www.kara.ie

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