Every good leader knows the importance of Company Culture, but yet it seems to be a fuzzy and intangible sort of concept. We know it when we feel it. Yet Culture develops constantly, and is something leaders have a role in actively shaping.
When we launched the OgilvyDMA in 2010, Rob Hill and Gavin Levinsohn said my primary objective was to help "geekify" the Ogilvy Cape Town culture and the industry. This is a big ask, and I had to grapple with the idea of what culture actually means. And the essence of it is that it's a set of norms and practices that set the tone of an organisation. Any strategy that doesn't take cultural practice into account is destined to fail. A military organisation, for example, may rely on a culture of discipline to enable adherence to a strategy. Without the culture of discipline, the strategy falls apart. This is why it is said that "culture eats strategy for breakfast".
Culture change in companies usually starts with people codifying purpose/mission, values and or beliefs. People pull together when they're united in Purpose. This is can otherwise be understood as your Big Ideal, your Mission, or your single most important Value. The easier it is to understand, the more likely it is to be effective. This is the basis of mindful culture change.
However, many companies have Vision, Values, and Beliefs, but find it difficult to distribute these. In fact many companies find active resistance to culture change when it's made too explicit. So to make sense of the distribution of Culture in organisations for myself, and to give myself something tangible to work with, I wrote a model for understanding the distribution of company culture that I’d like to share with you.
The acronym is PARTS, and the thinking behind it is that culture as a broad concept can be managed and worked on by analysing each component (part) and designing a solution to align that component towards where you want to grow your culture. I'm sure this approach will be particularly appealing to coders and engineers.
So, here are the PARTS:
Your company purpose isn't something that you just write down and forget about, it should be reflected in what behaviours you reward. In who you hire, promote and let go. To shift your culture, identify a group of people who behave in a way that builds the culture you want to develop.
Initially you can't try enforce a culture change across a whole organisation at once. Behaviours spread from person to person (Christakis, 2007). So it's important to rather work with a small group of people initially to make sure the cultural change is understood and adapted.
The key players in a social network are your Experts, Influencers, Gatekeepers, and Connectors. Each are important in their own ways, and you need to gain their support for any culture change initiative. These people need to have a high frequency of contact with the cultural change process an practice. They are going to be the ones that set the example and distribute the culture to the rest of the organisation. As Derek Sivers famously put it "new followers don't follow the leader, they follow the other followers."
Once you've gotten cultural momentum with your early groups, it's important to ensure that there are structures to ensure the culture can be sustained at scale. For example, Zappos offers new staff $1000 if they quit in the first two weeks. The thinking is that if they take the offer, they weren't a good fit for the company anyway.
How do you use art, artefact, and awards to SHOW people what is important to you. Our physical environment and the objects in it form the stage on which your staff perform. Are you setting them up for great performances, giving them the cues and props they need?
For example, Ogilvy London and Cape Town encourage more a more digitally savvy culture by making the latest gadgets available to staff through Ogilvy Labs. There are screens live-streaming social data from clients, there are interactive demos of the latest in sensory technology around the office, and there are framed certificates displayed for people who complete digital training. Other artefacts could include the kinds of awards that are valued, for example, displaying Cannes Lions, or Bookmark Awards.
Amazon reminds people of their value of frugality through the use of door-desks throughout the company.
The things a company does regularly become a signal of their culture. The rituals can be small or large, everything from how you on-board staff to how you handle daily meetings.
These are the regular practices that the community is involved in. These can be daily practices like shaking hands or hugging at the start of meetings. They could be weekly practices, like having a company lunch and sharing stories from the week. Quarterly practices, like a way of reporting goals and achievements. Annually, Bi-Annually etc etc.
For example, Ogilvy hosts a regular “How-To Friday” session where people who have done something extraordinary share how they did it. This signals the company’s long-term commitment to hands-on innovation.
How do you equip your people to do their work in a way that reflects company culture. I believe that investment in technology needs to be matched by investment in training or the tools won't be used effectively. Likewise, a company that doesn't invest in training won't be ready to adopt the latest tools.
Toyota found that if the people operating the machines at their factories understood how everything worked they would be more effective at solving problems and identifying opportunities for improvement. To quote Toyota's Senior Technical Executive Mitsuru Kawai “To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.”
Is Language a tool? Well, when we're equipped with the language to speak about the necessary change we suddenly gain access to the networks and conversations that we need to be involved in to make culture change possible and sustainable. Language connects us.
I realized the importance of having a story today is what really separates companies. People don’t just wear our shoes, they tell our story. ” — Blake Mycoskie, CEO, Tom’s Shoes
Stories provide examples for people to learn from and follow. They're like software for the mind. Stories can emerge from establishing Precedents. For example, a person does something that goes against the value system set out in the culture. You establish precedent by how you act on that transgression, and you distribute the behaviour by packaging it into an anecdote that others can learn from.
Stories are the way that people naturally encode and share complex social information. A company that takes the time to find heroes and craft stories around their actions will help create more such acts of inspiring heroism.
For example, how Standard Bank celebrates the story of Maggie Lesele, the proactive bank manager who encouraged her staff to wear running shoes on the banks busy days. The simple story serves to underline the importance of being proactive about improving customer service, and it sets an inspiring example to other staff and clients alike.
At Ogilvy, stories were created by investing more heavily in case-studies involving digital integration, such as Be The Coach (which went on to become the most awarded campaign of the year - winning international plaudits including four Gold Lions at Cannes)
Stories are like software for the mind. They help us understand cause and effect, and can have a transformative effect on what we see as possible and expected.
The results can be best summed up by Ogilvy Cape Town's Managing Director, Gavin Levinson
“What’s the best thing that’s happened in the Ogilvy ‘family’ over the past three years? While there are many highlights and accolades within and across all of Ogilvy’s companies, I would undoubtably say that the ODMA has and continues to be our finest hour.”