Alan's corner: How culture effectively defines an organisation
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Alan’s corner: How culture effectively defines an organisation

Alan’s corner: How culture effectively defines an organisation

It’s the culture within an organisation that ultimately shapes how things will get done

Gulf Business

During a recent leadership workshop, I asked the question: “What is the main driver of success for an organisation?” You can imagine the range of answers I got. “It’s about having an amazing product that is different,” said one.

Another offered: “It’s all about having great people”. While others gave answers such as “great service”, “lowest prices”, “clever marketing”, I simply nodded in agreement, supporting
every answer.

The reality is that all of these answers are perfectly correct in varying proportions, depending on where the organisation is in its evolution. It also depends on the competitive environment, the market and changing customer dynamics. But what is it that binds all of these concepts together and ensures they are executed effectively?

I believe the common denominator that determines the success or failure for any organisation, is its culture. Vision and mission describe ‘why’ an organisation exists. Strategy outlines ‘what’ should be done and ‘when’. Structure details ‘who’ will do what. But it’s the culture that shapes ‘how’ things will get done.

Management guru Peter Drucker was credited with saying: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. In corporate language, culture is often defined as ‘the way we do things around here’. It’s possible to ‘read’ the culture of an organisation from how it interacts with customers, media, suppliers and its own people. For example, the experience you get in Spinney’s is
quite different to what you get in Carrefour. That’s driven by a clearly defined brand to set context and culture to execute it consistently at every touch point, every day.

Within the definition of culture as ‘the way we do things around here’, there is a clue. Culture in essence is a combination of the values and behaviours of its people, the leadership style, the processes and the rules they live by.

It’s very encouraging to see huge brands like Disney attribute so much of their success to culture. They proactively defined their culture and continue to embed it right across their organisations. And if an organisation of its size can do it, then a more nimble SME should certainly be able to do that too.

I was invited to kick-start a culture change project for a family business in Dubai. With a level of maturity and openness, they acknowledged that their culture needs a refresh. As they examined past successes and failures, they concluded that those results were more to do with execution than the quality of the plans.

Culture Change Tips
Every organisation has a culture, whether you realise it or not. You may not be able to define it or even have planned it. But you do have one. There will be elements of it that are good and some that are holding you back. I am an avid supporter of organisations taking charge and shaping their own culture.

Consider these steps in doing just that:

Firstly, conduct focus groups of your own people, customers and suppliers. Think carefully about what questions you want to ask. You need to address the softer issues such as behaviour, processes and leadership. From the findings, carefully design an independent and anonymous culture survey rather than a generic one. Resist selecting a partner just because of the software they use. Engage a company that understands culture and helps you to ask the right questions. That will ensure you get quality insights as a result.

Use the feedback and insights to design a new culture, built on a set of values that respect the heritage of your brand, the ambition of the key stakeholders and the changes in your environment (such as competition, customers’ changing needs, employee expectations and so on). Do not use generic words from a Google search that any organisation could
also claim. Make them your own.

There will of course be a gap between your actual culture and your ideal – there always is! Use these insights to develop a plan and a structured change programme. This is better when it is facilitated by a third party, to share best practices, to challenge you and keep you on track.

A proactively defined culture impacts your customer experience, how engaged your people are to your brand, your marketing, internal controls and how decisions are made. In other words, everything that happens in your organisation is shaped by your culture. And remember, others can copy your strategy but nobody can copy your culture.

Alan O’Neill is a change consultant and speaker

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