Picture a boardroom. Results have been wavering and the competition are gaining ground. The executives are starting to feel the fear..

The CEO says, “I’ve been thinking about the situation. We need to take a good look at our culture. If we don’t make real changes soon, things will only get worse”…

“I agree.” nods the COO. “Our problem is that we don’t have a culture of execution. We’re good at starting things, and we make a lot of ‘commitments’, but how much of it actually gets done? We need to get a grip, be more disciplined and drive accountability.”.

The CFO chips in: “I think you’re right with discipline. No-one wants to do things the right way. We set out plans and processes, and no-one follows them. Have you seen the open audit items? If people won’t follow the rules, we need to start penalising them. We need a culture that values compliance.”

“Hmm. Says the CIO. I see my team struggling to deliver everything. They want to do the right thing but are overburdened and we expect too much of people. We’re always asking for more from less. People are stressed out, and I’ve got too many off sick. Look at us. Half of us are burnt out. If anything we need to put more of our emphasis on well-being.”

“But that’s the new reality”, interrupts the CEO. “Change is happening, whether we like it or not. We have to become more adaptable and responsive to what’s going on in the market. Maybe our people are stressed and overworked because we allow ourselves to fall behind.”

“That’s right.” In steps Manufacturing. “We are falling behind the competition, but we can’t just wait and respond to what other people are doing. We need to take a lead. We make a quality product but people don’t get excited about it. There’s nothing new. We need to build a culture of innovation.”

“What do you mean? We’re always developing our product line”, says the head of Product Development. “We’re just not selling it well enough. Marketing needs to step up”.

“Whoa. Hang on a minute”, says the Marketing director. If you cared what the customer wanted, as much as you cared about inventing stuff, you’d listen to what we’ve been telling you for years.”

“So collaboration is clearly also an issue”, remarks the CEO, with a roll of the eyes.

“Maybe”, says the HR Director, “but the lack of diversity means that we’d still probably come up the the same old tired ideas. We really need to build a culture of inclusion, so that people can express different ideas and feel safe challenging convention”.

“Right, that’s it” says the CEO, looking frazzled.

“So how are we going to hit our numbers this quarter?”


Note: Although this is clearly an exaggerated conversation, it highlights the challenge that organisations face. Different functions, different stakeholders have a different perspective or need for a “Culture of..”. We all see things through our own lenses. Most of what we read about culture suggests that there are competing cultural dimensions – or values – and I believe that’s true, but they’re generally presented as types, and the competition as a zero-sum game. In my view that makes culture change harder, at least to contemplate, because it is couched in terms of moving from here to there. I’d like to change the narrative on culture and present it as a pattern of ‘cultural styles’ over time. Yes, these are competing influences, but at an organisational level they co-exist and may even support each other. We can have a culture of innovation, of customer-centricity, of adaptability, of compliance, of collaboration, of execution, of well-being, and of inclusion, but to do so requires agility and, yes, some trade-offs…

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