Toolbox: fix your culture

Fall When Hit
Nov 13, 2014 · 6 min read
  • Culture is a critical tool for influencing decisions within an organisation, but most leaders ignore it
  • A full programme of cultural change can be complex and expensive, but small improvements can be made more easily
  • Good leaders regularly intervene in their organisation to shape its culture through their own example and the telling of stories
Peter Drucker

Fix your culture

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” famed management expert Peter Drucker reportedly said. He meant that culture is a vastly more powerful lever than anything dreamed up by the strategists. Unfortunately leaders are often unwilling to delve into culture, probably because it is too soft and the returns diffuse. But that’s a big mistake: leaders should regularly intervene to shape their organisation’s culture.

Strategy and culture are two sides of the same coin. Strategy and culture both constrain decision making, which is another reason many leaders are reluctant to develop them. Strategy, in one sense, is a framework that consciously acts to shape decisions: it is some corpus of guidelines about what organisations should do in the future. A decision can either cohere with a strategy, or not. In the latter case, either the decision must change, or the strategy. Culture operates at a subconscious level, but nonetheless influences decisions. Bain & Company, the management consultants, defines it as “a system of shared values, beliefs and behaviours, built over time, determining how things are done in an organisation.” In other words, both strategy and culture play similar roles, if in different ways.

Nowhere is the iceberg analogy truer than with culture. Culture is revealed in behaviours – what people actually do. This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Underpinning behaviours are the people’s values and beliefs. Though hidden in the sense that they are generally not discussed, they are nonetheless conscious. Beneath them, unconscious biases are much more profound, and difficult to understand.

Of course culture is heavily influenced by national, religious, ethnic and other identities – organisational identity is just one relatively small factor. For this reason it is often said that the military reflects the country from which it draws its soldiers, despite it having one of the strongest institutional cultures imaginable.

Setting the culture is central to good leadership. Leaders naturally take a keen interest in setting strategy: they want to set the guardrails for how their organisations make decisions. But the number of decisions informed

Ram Charan

by culture is exponentially larger than the number informed by strategy; it is simply foolish to leave this spanner in the toolbox. Further, cultures develop – whether consciously or not. For this reason, it is incumbent on leaders to repeatedly and consistently intervene to manage cultures by correcting deviant behaviours (as Ram Charan has written).

US Special Forces in Afghanistan

What constitutes a good culture varies. This is true by definition: for a company to benefit competitively from its culture it must be different from that of its competitors. Similar cultures will drive competitive convergence and will depress financial returns. The same is true of military units. Esprit de corps comes from belonging: the smaller and more elite the unit, the greater that sense becomes. While most units cannot replicate the professionalism of SOF, they can express their uniqueness in other ways.

Sappers in the French Foreign Legion

Bain & Company postulate that a good culture contains a unique identity and a performance orientation, which can include:

1. High aspirations / desire to win

2. External focus (customer focus)

3. Owner’s mentality

4. Bias to action

5. Ethic of collaboration

6. Flexibility / capacity to change

To these one should clearly add candour and commitment to a particular value system.

Jim Collins

Changing culture can be difficult and expensive. Most companies and most leaders don’t spend much time thinking about culture – culture just is. But those that do can spend a significant amount of time and money trying to change their companies’ cultures. Advice on culture from top consultancies can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars: organisations are complex systems, and ensuring structures, hiring policies, strategies, training, rewards, evaluation systems and metrics are all aligned is not easy. Over time, hiring the “right” people is another critical lever: as Jim Collins writes in his influential book Good to Great, leaders must first get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus – even before setting a strategy.

But busy leaders need a faster and more efficient way to turn culture to their advantage, particularly in the military, where the basic bureaucratic structure is fixed, and most commanders have limited influence over who is “on the bus”.

The quickest and most efficient tools for shaping strategy are leadership example and stories. Leaders set the tone for how their followers should behave through their own example. Committed civilian leaders would use a coach and 360-degree feedback to understand and improve how they are perceived. For obvious reasons this is difficult in the military, so military leaders must always be searching for truth-tellers who can fill this role.

Irish wolfhound, the mascot of the Irish Guards

Stories are also a powerful tool for a couple of reasons. First, they strengthen and define the organisation’s identity. People have a deep need to belong, and establishing the rules of the organisation can be effective. Second, stories invoke peer pressure to cause members to conform to the group’s norm. Wise leaders carefully choose the stories they tell, but they also make good use of what the social sciences call heroes and cultural artefacts. Heroes are those individuals an organisation does or could venerate; telling stories about heroes is powerful. Cultural artefacts are the visual manifestations of culture, for instance memorabilia, decorations and standards of dress. The military is naturally a goldmine of cultural artefacts, but many of these are simply inherited from bygone eras, or adopted haphazardly. This is particularly true in the British Army, which has a curious combination of respect for history and cynicism about displays of passion and patriotism. Putting thought into the artefacts on display can also help to shape a culture.

In sum, as Peter Bregman makes clear, when fixing culture, start with leadership and stories:

Do dramatic story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then let other people tell stories about it.

Find other people who do story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then tell stories about them.

Fall When Hit

Disruptive ideas for the British Army, by anonymous posters. Member of Military Writers Guild. Broadcast from @fallwhenhit. Curated by @durnure. Submissions welcome: durnure at

    Fall When Hit

    Written by

    A blog by British Army heretics. Background photo used under UK OGL.

    Fall When Hit

    Disruptive ideas for the British Army, by anonymous posters. Member of Military Writers Guild. Broadcast from @fallwhenhit. Curated by @durnure. Submissions welcome: durnure at

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