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Culture blog: O' mice an' managers

Quentin Millington

Quentin Millington

Quentin Millington on how managers can overcome the cultural barriers within their organisation to turn good ideas into great results

Question: What is the difference between good ideas and great results?

Answer: Culture

To reduce to one word why the best laid schemes o' mice an' managers so often fail may appear a simplification. We are more likely to be familiar with explanations that involve managerial incompetence, employee resistance, budget constraints and similar problems.  However, when we scratch the surface of these visible shortfalls we often discover corporate culture. Routinely neglected when we are thinking about strategy, culture can destroy managers’ ambitions to improve their organisations, just as Robert Burns’s plough ruined the unfortunate mouse’s hope of a restful winter.

Cultural assumptions evolve when groups discover for themselves successful ways to resolve their latest problems, not when outsiders shout ‘jump!’

The basic problem is that, as with an iceberg, the greater part of culture is hidden from view and impervious to direct intervention. Managers are accustomed to – although not always good at – attending to what is above the waterline: artefacts of culture such as technology systems, business processes, project budgets and employee behaviours. In recent years we have also gained fluency in talking about our ‘values’ – what we as individuals and groups (eg teams, departments and companies) say is important – the pithy slogans that emblazon annual reports, mission statements and corporate brochures.

However, we mostly do not address the underlying cultural beliefs that drive both what we do and the systems we put in place. Unfortunately, when managers attempt to launch good ideas by focusing on – quite naturally – what they can see and directly control, they run the risk of colliding with the taken-for-granted assumptions that comprise the submerged bulk of corporate culture. The result is that attempts to develop better systems, processes and behaviours fail because new ways of working conflict with people’s strongly held assumptions. The result? Performance stagnates as the demands of a competitive global marketplace march on.

What, then, can HR professionals do to enable people within the wider organisation turn good ideas into great results? First, embark upon an education programme to manage expectations – the often painful process of culture evolution takes time, requires freedom to experiment, and inevitably results in performance shortfalls as new ideas are trialled.  For an organisation to adopt new approaches to business, clients, work, management and so on can take years. Second, it is crucial to encourage managers and their team members to take personal accountability, for not just the day job, but also continuous improvement – consultants cannot drive change; nor can coaches, HR executives, people huddling in think-tanks, or even members of the board. Cultural assumptions evolve when groups discover for themselves successful ways to resolve their latest problems, not when outsiders shout ‘jump!’ It is important, finally, to ensure that managers have sufficient resources. This means support to develop transformational leadership skills, power to reward with money and status those who adopt new behaviours, flexibility to remove any ‘carriers’ of the old culture who stubbornly resist change, and autonomy to figure out within their own organisations how desirable values might translate into new ways of working. Without these basics, the fate of Burns’s hapless mouse awaits even the most well-intentioned managers.

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