We have become known for taking a very different approach to understanding and reviewing organisational culture. While we are very much known for being data-driven, alongside deep detailed research, there’s a couple of other seminal components that are a little less obvious, upon which our whole approach has been built. We also made two decisions early on that challenged the status quo of how this work is done. Five years down the track, we wouldn’t change a thing.
Let’s talk about those two foundations on which we’ve built our approach, those two decisions and why we made them, and then why we’d argue our approach is the way of the future. Before we do that, let’s provide a little context on our work.
The rigour of the work we do
We do two types of culture reviews.
About 30% of our work are independent reviews, often into tough situations or events. These reviews are requested by Boards or CEOs, who need someone without assumptions to work out what’s actually happening.
The remaining 70% are organisations on the front foot. They are already doing well, and seeking to do better or get in front of changes that are happening to their industry, their way of doing business, or their ways of working.
We use deep diagnostic tools. Our Culture Dashboard is uniquely built to measure, map and codify the complex system that is organisational culture from a variety of perspectives and angles. We add that to standardised human capital metrics, and qualitative interviews across a broad set of representative participants.
Our reviews are designed to ‘see’ exactly what is going on in culture.
Now, let’s look at those two foundational components: the way we think about people and the way we think about culture.
How we think about people
Foundational to everything we do is our deep appreciation of human beings.
We respect every person and are open to their contribution. They know their world well and will offer a perspective or unique understanding we have not heard before.
There are three things that are totally unique about people comparative to any other part of an organisation.
- Voluntary – they can leap up and do more than you expect any time they want to.
- Irrational – they can and do respond emotionally, and that’s not always a bad thing. Passion and commitment matters.
- Able to grow and change – they learn and can step above their old selves or old ways.
We never walk in thinking we’re the smartest people in the room. Instead, we assume we have a lot to learn.
How we think about culture
We’ve read an awful lot of definitions of culture, and we land back on a very simple one.
It is the way we treat people, and each other, around here.
It is how we treat our colleagues, peers, leaders, customers, clients, suppliers, community, and even the general public. So, we look at culture much more broadly than investigating a behaviour, one example or an event. We’re constantly looking at how ALL the people are treating everyone else. We’re looking for themes, expectations, standards, what’s applauded, what’s frowned upon, what sees you raised up, and what takes you down, and even out.
And we see it as everyone’s responsibility and opportunity. So, we don’t ‘review’ to give feedback or judge. Rather, we review to give everyone visibility of what is, and their role and impact on it.
Combining that with how we see people, we get that no culture is perfect, and no culture is all bad. It’s a mixture of history, current state, and possibility. How you got here, where you are, and where you might go.
All of that, brings us to the two decisions we made right from the beginning.
Those two decisions
Two of our earliest decisions were:
- Not to publish Culture Reviews into the public arena.
- Not to publish brand names on our website or anywhere else.
We respect that there are moments for public review and transparency in the public interest. There are expert journalists whose role it is to decide on those lines in the sand, expose what it important for public discourse and what should be challenged.
Alternatively, our role is to understand and help others to see and understand. We respect that culture is a super complex human system. Even those who live in it, usually understand just their own perspective or way of experiencing it, and not the whole picture. So, it’s hard to imagine that those of us from outside it, can read a few paragraphs of any media, and instantly have the depth of understanding required to judge it, fix it, improve it, and even commentate usefully on it.
As soon as people know a culture review is going into the media, they want to paint it a certain way. Protect their organisation, over-explain a reality or tension point, paper over a mistake, or manage a personal reputation.
That’s normal human behaviour.
To actually look 100% honestly at culture, with complete candour, you need to be feel safe to do so. You need to feel that your only agenda is understanding. And that you’ll have time and space to act on it without needing to defend it.
And by leaving the brand names off our website, we are free to have voice on culture and understanding culture, rather than representing any organisation or individual.
It is a different approach for sure. Challenges the status quo, absolutely, and refuses to feed an insatiable desire for salacious gossip and details of the fallibility of our institutions and organisations.
(And why data matters)
Our approach is to look at the following (and apologies for the over-simplification):
- Context – culture always happens in a context. It is built on origins, history and legacy, impacted directly by today and the purpose of the work being done now, and has potential options in what tomorrow will bring
- Quantifiable data – from individuals, teams, cohorts, and the aggregate organisation, and ideally from clients, customers, and community as well. Data from what was planned and what eventuated, and the gap in between.
- Qualitative understanding – whatever you see in culture, no matter how surprising or unexpected, there is usually an explanation. A story of why it came about, a logic of why it was the standard set, a background to a ritual that has become important. In the qualitative interviews you hear all of that, in the language and stories of the organisation.
Our approach takes all these, to a research standard. We codify the culture that ‘is’ against what it needs to be, or could be, to achieve the work and purpose.
Our experience is that data will speak to you if you let it. Put everything you have on the table, and the themes and patterns will detail out what is, and where the outliers are.
Every organisation has their own unique culture, and often more than one culture. The best ones have commonality that links everyone, but even then, there are subsets and unique cultures to accommodate special work, special teams, or unique moments in time. There is no ‘best practice’ or perfect culture, but rather the right culture for the work being done, the purpose achieved, and the potential available.
And once you have culture understood, even mapped, what happens then?
Well, then you need to have receptivity to do something about it.
Protect and leverage strengths, address risks, stop poor behaviour, resolve conflicts, and tension points, and scale or up the ante on things that matter most and allow people to thrive and give their best contribution.
Achievements of an Angry Soap Box
We’ve all seen culture reviews in the media. We each read a few paragraphs, debate a perspective, and posture on what we think.
From our work, we’d challenge whether that’s effective, or even useful.
Within any culture, you see some things that are broken, fragile, or need some care and attention. Occasionally, you see something or someone, so destructive, that must be addressed urgently.
Our experience is that if you’ve set receptivity and openness at the beginning, people will have a genuine appetite to go forward in a better way.
Jumping on an angry, cynical, or righteous soap box – judging, belittling, or even just critiquing from the outside – has little impact other than battening down the hatches, or closing doors to options and possibilities. Every time we see genuine action and change, it is from deep understanding and appreciating, not from being worn down by debate, criticism, or humiliation.
Why this represents the future
Our societal and business appreciation of culture as an amazing and unlimited contributor to success – both for individuals and for organisations – is right now at an all-time high. To deepen that understanding we have to appreciate what culture is. A fallible, flawed and deeply human complex system that can always be improved.
Culture has all those human elements to it that we described earlier. Flawed and fallible, for sure. It is also voluntary, surprising and inspiring you when you least expect it. It is emotional and irrational, driven by a commitment beyond any individual. And it changes shape and grows from experience and the people who form it, as they learn, grow and change as well.
When we study culture, we’re looking at how to understand it, improve it, and ensure that its impact is more positive on everyone who is part of it.
We’re yet to see a perfect culture. There is always space for improvement, an opportunity to be better than anyone imagined, and whatever the standard set, someone will find a way to go higher.
Critiquing culture harshly is easy. Listing the errors, mocking the people in it, and preaching easy fixes, is almost a sport. The angry soapbox is exciting. But, history shows it leads to little sustainable change when the reviewers leave.
Deeply understanding what Culture is, and having those who own it, appreciating the potential of what it could be, is the impetus to move and improve.