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Getting to the basics on culture change

Jul 17th

We’ve all reached for a change intervention at some stage – but what does it really mean? This issues also includes: a radical approach to public spending; refuse to waste time; and getting face to face with your people.

Editor’s view

Getting to the basics on culture change

You’d be hard pressed to find a leader today who hasn’t reached for a ‘culture change’ intervention at some point in their careers – but what does it really mean?

If the term ‘culture change’ has you reaching for the metaphorical remote control to change the channel, you may have heard one too many pious exhortation to change the culture. I’ve heard two apparently contradictory views on culture recently that reminded me of what is at the root of organisational culture.

John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting can be relied upon for trenchant and provocative views and he recently took the head of HM Customs and Revenue to task for talking about and investing in culture change. The point he makes is that if you can get the flow and organisation of work right then many of the organisational conditions around the work will take care of themselves.

He reminds us that organisational culture is not an end in itself – it is a property of the organisation that can serve the purpose and work of the organisation for better or worse. If the work is inefficient, wasteful and chaotic how can the culture be healthy?

Ed Schein of MIT who is a guru of organisational knowledge if anyone is, held a seminar at the Improvement and Development Agency at the end of last year. He pointed out that when clients ask him for help on culture change he cannot tell them whether he can help or not as he does not (yet) know what they mean. His response is to pursue a line of questioning that takes their often vague concept of culture change and narrows it down to a specific shift in behaviours that is required if work is to be done differently. Culture change that is not specified in this plain language of work related behaviours is a recipe for wasted effort.

Both these views chime strongly with our experience of helping organisations tackle issues of culture and climate. The largest employee engagement programme we have supported was designed to identify behaviour change and anchor it in everyday work. We are all sometimes guilty of using a kind of shorthand cultural language that ascribes the psychological characteristics of individuals to a collective system of many thousands. But if we then assume we are engaged in some mass psychotherapy we have missed the point – culture arises from the behavioural interactions of people in their work.

Understanding the work and the influences on people as they work are the first steps the changing culture.

In the news

A radical approach to public spending

If you want different answers, you need a different approach. This month’s editor, John Bruce-Jones, looks at new mindsets in place-based government and the effect on the public purse.

We have been supporting the Total Place pilot in Lewisham and have been part of the national dialogue between local agencies and central government departments to understand the opportunities that come from place-based government. Dozens of places as well as the 13 ‘official’ pilots have been putting customers and public service outcomes at the centre of a radical look at how state expenditure and state resources could be better used in a place.

The ‘official’ programme, sponsored by the Treasury and Department for Communities and Local Government, has been unusual in at least one respect – it recognised that if you want some very different answers then you need to set about looking for them in different ways.

The programme, to the discomfort of some, has not looked like the kind of engineered and controlled programme to which we have become accustomed. That has meant that the reports of the pilots, submitted in February, contained a richness of insights, promising ideas and things to try out but which are not strictly comparable.

We will have to wait and see how, if at all, this finds its way into this month’s Budget. What is clear to many of those who have been involved in this work is that there is significant inefficiency in the complex systems that exist to deliver public outcomes on the ground and that in a future of resource constraint there is no alternative but to continue the explorations and experiments of the Total Place mindset.

Tip of the month

Refuse to waste time

As we face ever increasing pressures on our time, the need to prioritise has never been greater. We look at two tough, but very effective, tips you can try for immediate effect.

Unproductive meetings back to back and a blizzard of emails keep many of us from the things we want to spend our time on. Here are two tough tips to get you out from under:

  • Refuse to read copy emails. Set up your email to respond to copy email senders automatically telling them that a) you may not have time to read the email today and it will be deleted overnight and b) if they need you to do something, which might include reading and commenting on a document, they should email you directly.
  • Refuse to go to poorly planned meetings. If a meeting request gives you a sinking feeling email back a Tentative Acceptance (if in Outlook) asking to be informed of the purpose and objectives of the meeting, who is responsible for convening the meeting and why you are needed. If you don’t get these

– decline the invitation. A constructive explanation of why you were not at the meeting and your approach might catch on and then everyone will have more time for the things that matter.

Your questions answered

As a senior manager I keep getting told I need to be more visible; I don’t see what more I can do. What do you suggest?

Firstly, who is telling you to be more visible? Visibility of senior managers , like communications are factors that surveys show are always in deficit in organisations. And usually they stand for something else. So ask yourself what is going on round here that makes people say they want to see more of me.

Secondly, and perhaps inconveniently for you, face to face communication with your staff is essential. No-one has ever experienced motivating leadership from all staff emails and occasional ‘school assemblies’. If you have lots of staff who undertake transactional or customer facing work then being with people is a vital part of your role. Other things you do may be less important from the point of view of creating a productive organisation.

Thirdly, think of the quality rather than the quantity of your presence with staff. Think back in your career to those interactions with senior managers that left a positive mark on you. Identify what your staff might need most right now – purpose, direction, being part of a joint effort, honesty, and confidence etc.

Make sure you have every week some human one to one conversations with staff that don’t see you every day. If you have spent 5 minutes with someone and demonstrated a genuine interest in them and their work that experience will be related to half a dozen other people and a little bit of your visibility will rub off on them.

This article is filed under: business capability, , leadership, leadership development, organisation, organisation design, organisational culture, people, strategic change management, strategic communication, time management

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