Christo van Staden
Director: Interventions, Inavit IQ Leadership
Liezel van Arkel
MD, Inavit IQ Leadership
Peter Drucker famously said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. The implication is clear: no matter how great the new strategy we devise, the forces of the existing organisational culture will, if they remain unacknowledged and unaddressed, impact the execution of the strategy.
We can refer to this as cultural inertia or cultural “stuckness”, and we contend that it is a critical part of the work of the leadership of an organisation to loosen this stuckness and create the conditions for cultural change.
In the previous article in this series, Du Plessis et al. refer to some of these cultural aspects affecting effective strategy execution: belief in the strategy, confidence in the organisation’s ability to execute, trust, a shared sense of purpose, etc. If cultural conditions prevail in the organisation where, for instance, people find it difficult to believe in the strategy and/or the organisation’s ability (or sometimes real intent) to execute the strategy, we face a significant challenge.
It is moreover a challenge that is often difficult to admit or to take seriously because it relates to the “soft stuff”, hard to measure, and to be sure, hard (some would say impossible) to manage. How, for example, do we “manage” what people believe (or, in language much loved by public relations managers, “manage perceptions”)?
There are no simple solutions to this challenge, and wherever simple solutions are offered we should be wary of them. We therefore invite you to consider all talk of culture, this article included, with a certain degree of caution.
Culture and business value
Let’s unpack the “culture challenge” inside the Business Value Model. The BVM describes the various elements and their interrelationships of the system of business value creation. One of these elements is called “Leadership and culture”; we can assume that leadership and culture are fundamental to the creation of business value. In what way?
When asked: “What is the link between leadership and culture”, the answer seems obvious: The way in which eaders show up in the organisation shapes the organisational culture. For example, if leaders in the organisation consistently put the customer at the centre of their decisions, the organisation will develop a customer-centric culture. If leaders are focused on execution (in how they speak and how they act), the organisation will develop an execution culture.
Organisational culture settles over time, and to a large extent things just are the way they are. If an organisation is not customer-centric but needs to become customer-centric, leadership obviously need to start showing up in different ways. Leaders are human though (at least, we hope so), and find it as difficult to change their habits as anyone else. If their entire mind-set has been product-centric for the past two decades, becoming customer-centric is not as simple as recognising that it is necessary.
Although “leadership and culture” is expressed in the BVM as one of the elements of the organisational system, they fundamentally affect every aspect of the system.
Let’s illustrate this with an example. Two companies decide to merge. This is a big change, usually bigger and more daunting than the people who embark on this change expect, even when they expect it to be daunting. It is daunting precisely because of the way culture shapes every aspect of the organisation, and especially because it largely happens in invisible ways.
Unpacking this change using the BVM, we can say that –
- Things may be happening in the external environment that make this merger necessary or viable, e.g. consolidation in the industry;
- The merger is seen as viable because different business benefits have been identified – but who has identified these benefits, and how does everyone in the two companies feel about it and see it?;
- This obviously requires a change in strategy – we need to think carefully about how we are going to go about realising those potential business benefits. Now just imagine the stakes here, and how different people in the organisation may have very different perspectives on this, based possibly on what they have always assumed about their world and their culture;
- Meanwhile, as part of the strategic conversation, we see that there will be a change in how we can delight our customers, and this requires changes in a number of things:
- We need to change the organisational capacity, redesign the organisation – new structures, technology integrations, bringing together different people management systems – this is painstaking work, and sometimes touches deep aspects of our work experience, i.e. our culture;
- We need to get our people to perform in different ways, to deliver this changed experience to our customers;
- While we are doing all of this, we are figuring out how to change our external brand; and
- We are also figuring out how to change the internal brand, because we understand that our customers can’t believe something about us that we don’t believe about ourselves.
- How do we make all of this happen? This is the domain of leadership and culture.
We can say: culture is what is here and emerging already in the organisation, and leadership is the action that is shaping how culture will be in the very next moment. Culture emerges from moment to moment, and leadership is responsible for how culture emerges.
What is culture?
There are numerous, but generally similar, definitions for the term “organisational culture”. Most of these definitions describe culture on the basis of its components, i.e. the various elements that are said to make up culture: perspectives, beliefs, worldviews, attitudes, patterns of behaviour, and so on. This may create the impression that culture is static, and that we can manage it in the same way that we either manipulate an object or exploit an asset.
We prefer thinking of culture as emergent, and this compels us to recognise that we can only work from inside culture, participating in its emergence, thereby influencing how it emerges, but not on it, as if we are outside the culture.
This requires that we become aware not only of what we see manifest in the organisation, but also of the invisible forces out of which the visible behaviours, patterns of thinking, general climate, and so on come forth as the visible culture.
If we, for a moment, think of organisational culture as similar to an iceberg, we can imagine that a small part is visible above the water, but beneath the water there is a vast mass invisible unless we take the trouble to go and have a good look.
In the psycho-social domain of life, what is “under the water” is that out of which what is above the water emerges. When we say that culture is emergent, we are implying that culture is an ongoing process of establishment and adaptation.
The visible, established culture is what we see when we encounter the organisation: mission statements, product brochures, brand images, and the behaviours and attitudes of the people of the organisation. When we work with culture, we see the actual signs of shift, such as the development of collaborative behaviour where perhaps previously people tended to work in silos. What emerges above the water are, above all, new, observable patterns of social interaction.
Invisible are the dynamics underlying these shifts, and on these dynamics depend the extent to which the organisation is able to change and adapt. Here, “under the water”, we find adaptations that are no longer immediately recognisable as adaptations, and that has become established as automatic defence mechanisms (such as “That’s just the way it works here”, or, “We have always done it this way”), and unconsciously held views of “how the world works” (such as “That’s just the nature of our industry”, “People are lazy, if I don’t drive them, they will do nothing”, or “It’s a jungle out there – I need to protect my turf – collaboration is for the birds”).
Deliberate shifts cannot happen without bringing into consciousness what is going on unconsciously, both at individual and collective level. Shift requires for example that we become aware of the invisible political currents shaping how we make decisions on a day-to-day basis in our culture (for example: how does authority and power really work in your organisation?).
Imagine a very established, very successful organisation that faces massive disruption. Nobody in the organisation talks about the possibility of being disrupted, except for a few mavericks who are quickly silenced. Silencing the dissenting voices is a cultural adaptation, and it serves to keep intact the organisation’s collective view of itself as forward-thinking, successful, stable, and perhaps too big to fail. What once served to make the organisation great – its living purpose perhaps – has become its trap, its structure of complacency, its way of avoiding its own reality.
If we think of organisational culture as emergence, it is also useful to think of it as a trap. The things that will snare us are the things under the water, the things we avoid, the things we don’t want to know.
The work of leadership is to wake the organisation up, to shake it out of its sleepy habits, so that we can begin to see how our culture actually emerges from moment to moment, and so that we can participate in this emergence by choice, rather than getting dragged along by forces we refuse to understand.
Leading cultural emergence
What can leadership do? Our reaction to the need to change or evolve is often to focus on what we can see – the visible patterns of interaction in the organisation, the results, the declared organisational values, codes of behaviour, and so the list goes on. We see many organisations that are adept at coming up with leadership competency frameworks, vision statements, BHAG’s (big hairy and audacious goals), and the like.
We also often see the frustration of the leaders of these organisations when all of these efforts yield no real change but rather lead to an increasing sense of resignation and cynicism among the people of the organisation. Aspirational statements quickly turn into mechanisms for driving compliance: “living the values” becomes a KPA, and the vision is a statement nobody even sees anymore, let alone believe.
Our real work is to become real about our cultural world. As leaders, we need to do this on a personal level, and as leadership, we need to do this together. This requires the kind of organisational conversations where we can drop our defences and see eye to eye, speak heart to heart, about “The way things really work here” and “The way we actually do (or don’t do) things here”, and also about the things we don’t want to see but need to look at courageously, because from them emerges our culture.
The quality of the culture that emerges depends on the quality of our leadership presence – how we show up in our interactions with each other. This requires us to become more vulnerable and more open not only about our defences, but also the assumptions and worldviews out of which they arise, about the fears and anxieties that lie under them, and also about the dreams that we have for our organisation and this world we live in.
Let’s stop speaking about culture as the soft stuff. When we say that this is “soft stuff”, it becomes easy to dismiss, or to put at the bottom of our priorities. To call it the soft stuff is another cultural habit that keeps the emergence of culture invisible and unconscious, and thereby keeps it limiting and small, and prevents us from truly embracing our world and accepting its challenges and embarking on our own evolution fully engaged, empowered and purposeful.
About inavit iQ
inavit iQ (Pty) Ltd is a South African based international business consulting professional services firm. We have a formal presence in Gauteng, Western Cape, Mauritius and Europe.
We work in a range of industries and with companies of varying sizes and in various phases of their own growth cycle. Our collaboration with clients focuses on:
- Developing insight into their external context and competitive landscape;
- Strategy formulation and alignment;
- Leadership excellence and leadership-led business transformation;
- Organisation capacity including business and operating models, organisation, work, data and systems architecture;
- People performance, engagement and commitment;
- Customer delight and brand reputation; and
- Decision-making dashboards and intelligence.
April, Kurt, Julia Kukard and Kai Peters, 2013. Steward Leadership: A maturational perspective. UCT Press, Cape Town.
Block, Peter, 1991. The empowered manager: Positive political skills at work. John Wiley & Sons, New York. Heil, Dominik, 2011. Ontological Fundamentals for Ethical Management. Springer.
Yeatman, Craig, Unpublished manuscript “The Establishment and Adaptation Landscape”, and many personal conversations between 2012 and 2017.