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Practice makes for a powerful culture

Are you deliberate about shaping the culture of your business? Or does it evolve around you with very little thought? This matters because your culture is your execution system. It’s the thing that will most strongly influence whether your strategy succeeds or fails.    

Culture forms whether we like it or not. Wherever you get a group of people, behaviours and patterns will become entrenched. Changing these once they’ve set in is dead hard. I’ve battled with this in the past and it’s exhausting.

As the new MD of IT Lab, I realised we had a matter of months to save the company. It was just after the financial crash and we were haemorrhaging cash. The culture needed radical change. We got there, but it was tough.  

A story comes to mind about Lloyds Bank in Sheffield. One of their branches was doing well, the other badly. So they took the manager of the best and moved him to the worst. Nothing happened. He made no progress. It was only when they transferred a third of his staff to the worst-performing branch that he reached a tipping point. Then he could make an impact and the culture started to improve.

For many fast-growing businesses, culture is neglected. There’s a point where they realise that unhelpful, bureaucratic ways of working have become normal. Meetings are badly organised and always overrun. People have little respect for each other’s time. The washing up is piled high in the sink. They wish they’d done something sooner, before the rot set in. This is why it’s better to take a deliberate approach now and start practising. And keep on practising until things get better.

Get to grips with existing culture

First-person view of hands holding a map with an old airplane fuselage in the background.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Have you ever been a customer of your company? Or worked on the front-line? Are you aware of any friction or pain your customers and staff might be experiencing? An old colleague of mine from my Meditel days got in touch recently. As we caught up, he told me how he’d turned around the fortunes of a poor performing depot at British Gas. 

Before taking his role as depot manager, he’d decided to ‘mystery shop’ the experience of a new engineer. The aim was to see what was going on behind the scene—how he was treated by the other engineers, the process of job allocation, quality control etc. It told him everything he needed to know about why the depot was under-performing. Some of the things he uncovered were horrific. Forewarned is forearmed. He knew exactly where to focus when he took over as the new manager.  

Before you plan and start practising, you need to know what you’re dealing with. Look at the norms and unwritten rules that exist in your culture. In his book, ‘Organisational Culture and Leadership’, Edgar Schein compared culture to an iceberg. Above the water were the tangible elements such as the stories, structures, documented processes and artefacts. Below the water was a much bigger mass of invisible assumptions, unconscious beliefs and ways of thinking. These are the things you need to uncover and understand.

In the past, I’ve made this a collective effort. Wherever I’ve been MD, I’ve asked people to give me full and frank feedback. They’ve been encouraged to point out things that are getting in the way of our company having a high performing culture. I’ve set up email addresses ([email protected]) and formed steering committees to work on this. You need to get to the root of why these things are happening and stop their proliferation.

Because culture originates in teams, it works better to focus here first. It’s impossible to change it top down. Get to grips with the culture in your teams and influence at this level.

Have a plan and start practising

Shallow focus shot of row of violinists in orchestra.
Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

Let’s say you’re clear on your direction of travel and have a clear strategy. It’s time to ask yourself, do you have the purpose, values and behaviours in place to make this a reality? If not, you need a plan to get to this point. And you need to practice.

There is no professional sports team in the world that goes to a match without practising together. This is why I think the current trend towards remote working due to the COVID crisis is misguided. Man United wouldn’t practice separately in their gardens and then get together on match day to play. Teams need to be in the same physical space to improve their skills.

It takes me back to the best rugby coach I’ve ever had. He’d coached the England under 21s and came up with a game plan to play to our team’s collective strengths. We’d turn up at a match with a rock-solid blueprint for success. Our opponents didn’t. They relied on the individual brilliance of a couple of players. The result? Our team was promoted two seasons in a row. Similarly, most businesses tend to have a couple of good people and rely too heavily on them when the going gets tough. But if you can get everyone practising together, you’ll find your business starts humming like a well-oiled machine.  

Make sure you prioritise practice amongst your teams.

Practice seeking criticism

Six golf balls and a golf club around a hole on a putting green.
Photo by tsg pixels on Unsplash

I believe powerful cultures evolve from actively seeking criticism. This is fundamental. It’s so important to know when things aren’t right and try to fix them. To do this well, you need psychological safety. People need to feel able to speak up when they’re unhappy.

Look at the retrospectives around the Space Shuttle disaster. They discovered that managers knew about catastrophic flaws in the O-rings at low temperatures well before the accident. And yet this vital information didn’t get through to the people making the decisions. The managers didn’t want to be the bearers of bad news.  

Consider using pre-mortems to get everyone into the habit of speaking up. These encourage staff to articulate possible issues before they happen. They’re incredibly effective. People are forced to get creative with their criticism and this becomes an accepted part of planning. If this is common practice, there’s no fear of looking like the only negative person in the room. You’ll get a full, 360-degree view of the problem that can be incredibly valuable. 

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