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April 26th, 2018

Creating a Positive and High Performing Culture

Recently Bourton Group took the decision to move offices from The Stables at Bourton Hall to newer, more contemporary offices in Daventry.  As part of the move we had to carry out a very rigorous 5S activity so that we only took with us what we would need in the future, and to leave behind unnecessary items that had been cluttering up the offices or ‘archived’.  During this exercise it became clear that even though we are a ‘Lean’ organisation, archiving had been used as a solution when it was difficult to decide about whether to keep something or not.  Our archiving had expanded to meet the available space.  With no storage space at the new offices, much had to go!

However, as with most of these exercises, applying 5S to an archive meant that we unearthed many treasures.  These included very dodgy photographs of current senior team members when they first joined the business in the mid 80’s, interview notes that would make current HR practitioners cringe, and volumes of published Bourton Group Surveys that shaped leadership thinking in many sectors during the 80’s, 90s and 00’s.

Reading back over some of the results of the surveys, it was particularly noticeable how relevant the topics still are and how some of the challenges facing leaders then are little different from those faced by leaders trying to improve performance now.

Culture ShockOne survey in particular struck me as worthy of a re-read.  “Culture Shock: Understanding Sources of Competitive Advantage in UK Industry” published in 2001.  Culture Shock is based on a sample of over 180 UK domiciled companies. An interesting extract is detailed below.

Culture is at the heart of Bourton Groups 2001 Survey.  It is perceived as both the biggest single inhibitor to change and as the single factor that (if perfect) would most enhance a business’s competitive edge over the next 2-3 years.

The survey findings reinforce the significant role that culture plays in influencing business performance and the importance of harnessing culture in the support of business objectives. Bourton Group supports this finding wholeheartedly – based on quantitative evidence* and qualitative evidence of helping organisations to harness culture in support of changes to business strategy, structure and ways of working.

*‘Empowered is not a dirty word’ by Roger Trapp, Independent on Sunday 28/12/97; ‘Participation ‘produces’ profit’ by Peter Marsh, Financial Times 7/1/98; Industrial and Commercial Training, Volume 30, No 4, 7/98.

The findings suggest that ignoring culture carries two major risks:

  1. Missing the opportunity to harness it as a positive influence of competitiveness
  2. Allowing it to act as a negative influence by inhibiting change.

So how can an organisation exploit the opportunity offered by a positive culture and avoid the risk of a negative one?

Creating a Positive and High Performing Culture

Deciding what we mean by ‘culture’ is a useful starting point.  The common phrase ‘how we do it around here’ does not provide too many clues to companies seeking to bring about culture change.

Working with clients to help them transform their organisations has provided Bourton Group with an excellent opportunity to develop more specific definitions of the key elements of any organisations culture.

We have identified four main dimensions:

1. Structures and Procedures

This area describes the overall design of the organisation, the reporting structures within it and the nature of the individual roles/responsibilities throughout. These factors differ significantly across organisations and impact of the responsibility for and speed of decision making and the efficacy of information flow within the organisation.  This dimension incorporates the hard aspects of an organisations culture and its policies and procedures for:

  • Setting targets
  • Measuring and rewarding performance
  • Helping people to learn/develop
  • Formal channels available for communication

2. Communications and Information Management

Creating a Positive and High Performing Culture

This is concerned with the interchange of information and ideas, and determines how effectively information flows up, down and across the company.  Important aspects include information about business targets, performance measures, performance feedback and changes to ways of working as well as the ways in which successes are acknowledged and people’s contributions recognised.

It examines availability of information, access to it in all formats and communication practices. It includes the ways in which people exchange views and ideas, solve problems and are involved in changes to working practices and procedures.

3. Relationships

This dimension describes the nature of the interactions between people vertically and horizontally across the organisation.  Formal positional power, authority, technical expertise, shared purpose, knowledge and political influence can define these interactions. People relationships at work are characterised by their behaviour towards each other; the things that people say or do, or don’t say or do in the work place.

Across organisations, there are wide variations in the expectations of managers and employees, of themselves and of each other.  These variations are particularly apparent in situations involving performance feedback, employee reward and recognition.

4. Style

This captures the least tangible aspects of an organisations culture: the informal rules and procedures influencing ‘how we do things around here’.  An organisations cultural style is highly influenced by the values and beliefs of its people, both spoken and unspoken.  Style becomes apparent across a range of people related issues, including:

  • target setting
  • performance measurement/feedback
  • managing change
  • learning and development and employee communication

The organisations style in relation to these issues is unlikely to be described in a staff handbook or to be formalised in any sense but will be understood and recognised by everyone.

Conclusion

These four dimensions are manifested across a continuum from a highly traditional ‘command and control’ culture to increasing participation/employee involvement and ultimately mature self-direction or empowerment.

There is no one perfect template for culture that will work for every organisation.  Some degrees of empowerment are more suitable for some organisations and not others.  However, alignment across the four dimensions appears to be a key factor in influencing how well the overall culture supports business need.  If Structures and Procedures reflect a self-directed culture and yet Communication and Information Management are highly traditional, then this is likely to hinder performance.

Understanding the main dimensions contributing to overall culture helps organisations to make the seemingly intangible more tangible.  Simple techniques like: focus groups, employee survey and structured interviews can be used to assess the current situation against indicators of each of the four dimensions.

The same techniques can be used to describe the desired culture.  ‘Sizing the gap’ in this way helps organisations (and teams) to describe as apparently intangible task – culture change – in concrete terms and provides a ready-made agenda for change.Organisation Culture Profile ChartNow, some 17 years on, Bourton Group still uses this framework, Organisational Culture Profile ™, to help organisations to drive performance improvement through culture change.  Making improvements to culture, has become the way to make change sustainable.

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Mike NotmanMike Notman, Managing Partner

Mike is a highly experienced Change and Organisational Development specialist and has delivered significant change programmes in a wide range of larger private companies and public bodies since moving into consultancy in 1991. Having established a commercial consultancy for Leeds Metropolitan University in 1993 he went on to establish and lead two national consulting practices on behalf of major accounting firms.

During the last 25 years Mike has focused on developing organisational structures, leaders, senior teams and corporate cultures to improve efficiency and effectiveness in business and operational performance.

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