‘What’s for breakfast?’ —
Shaping culture and behaviour to create better places to work
Strategy, design and performance specialist Olivia Gossage and behavioural scientist Renee Jaine take a look at how organisations can successfully develop the kind of work culture they want.
You may have heard the saying that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. From our experience here at MartinJenkins this can be true — lots of time and effort is invested in developing strategies and plans, but often less effort is invested in shaping the way people will work to deliver it. The result of this is a misalignment between what the organisation wants to achieve (the strategy) and the culture needed to deliver it.
Organisational culture is inherently tricky in many ways — it’s intangible, it can be difficult to shift, and it relies heavily on individuals within the organisation. This makes culture the first thing that goes in the ‘too hard’ basket — being ignored or avoided, often to the detriment of the group.
But if there are people working in your organisation, then you will have a culture of some description. So the questions are: What kind of culture do you want, and how do you build that culture?
Getting to grips with culture
We think about culture as the combination of collective beliefs, values and norms which shape how people think, feel and act. Leading culture academic Edgar Schein describes culture as ‘the sum total of everything an organization has learned in its history in dealing with the external problems — which would be goals, strategy, how we do things — and how it organizes itself internally.’
Regardless of what kind of culture you have, it will play out at three different levels: first, the visible or tangible things that represent and reinforce your culture; second, the values that the organisation espouses based on the people within it; and third, underlying assumptions and beliefs.
These three levels are often presented using the metaphor of an iceberg, to demonstrate what is above and below the surface:
To shape or influence culture, you need to think about both how culture is observed and what influences it, to determine where to focus your change efforts.
Shaping the culture you want
In our experience, many organisations that are trying to shift their culture focus on aspects of ‘technical culture’ — the organisation’s mission and values — and stop there. This is great for clarifying how people are expected to behave and operate together, but it often misses the social relationships and interconnectedness which affect how people relate.
A focus on technical culture also overlooks what is invisible or below the surface, including how individuals’ values, assumptions and beliefs influence how people behave and interact.
A different approach is needed. Behavioural science has shown that context is critical in shaping behaviours and attitudes, so MartinJenkins has mapped out eight key factors which can shape the cultural context in an organisation. Any one or more of these can support or undermine the culture you want, so it’s important to understand which factors people notice or respond to most.
Each of these factors presents a point of leverage, and their impact on culture is often not recognised or understood. For example, if your organisation wants to see more collaboration and innovation but people are rewarded based on individual metrics, there’s a gap between what’s expected and what’s valued.
The good news is that each of these factors can be adjusted through well-designed interventions, to support the development of a culture that’s best suited for your organisation.
Putting it into practice — using behavioural science insights to shape culture
We worked with a client who told us that their culture was ‘hierarchical’, and where “technical experts were praised above all others”. This organisation was seeking to be more collaborative and innovative, but people behaving like they had to be ‘the expert’ wasn’t going to lead to the best solutions. So leaders wanted to embed a more egalitarian culture in which people with diverse skillsets would be utilised and valued.
This wasn’t an abstract exercise: as part of our work we co-designed with the client what their future culture might look like in practice. The team identified that people should engage with each other earlier, and work in multi-disciplinary teams.
We designed a series of activities and interventions to shape the cultural context, and to shift people’s underlying assumptions. Working with our client, we made recommendations relating to several of the factors which shape culture:
- we recommended they cut down the number of hierarchical layers, and establish cross-functional teams in which technical experts work alongside those with other forms of expertise (‘organisational structure’)
- we called out that not everyone was contributing in meetings, and we developed mechanisms to ensure everyone gets a say (‘ways of working’)
- we recommended ways to celebrate non-technical experts in the internal newsletters and through manager updates at meetings, to shift beliefs about what leaders value (‘what gets talked about’)
- we suggested they remove things in the office which reinforce hierarchy, such as offices for technical experts, and build connection between staff through seating in cross-functional teams (‘physical environment’, and ‘leadership’).
There are many ways to understand organisational culture, and many pragmatic ways to shape how people think, feel and act. Understanding how people behave and what influences behaviour is the critical first step in shaping a culture that will serve your organisation well in the future. Once you understand where you are at, it’s easier to identify where to focus your behaviour change efforts.
So if you don’t invest effort in it, culture can ‘eat strategy for breakfast’. And just like a hearty breakfast sustains you for the day, investing time and effort into shaping your culture can be rewarding in the long run.
About the authors
Olivia Gossage specialises in supporting clients to shift their culture, lift organisational capability, and shift the barriers which prevent people from doing great work. She has worked with public and not-for-profit clients in New Zealand. She is passionate about working with others to create and sustain positive workplace environments.
Olivia’s approach is highly analytical but also very personable — she works closely with her clients to solve problems and develop innovative ways of improving their processes. With her commitment to a holistic view of organisations and an evidence-based approach, she delivers high-quality, durable results.
Renee Jaine nine years’ diverse work experience as a behaviour-change and management specialist, in roles that have included consulting, research and analysis, academic work, and communications. She is skilled at defining a client’s challenge, conducting research to get to the heart of the issue, and generating innovative and practical solutions.
The unifying theme in Renee’s work is her passion for using research-backed insights to promote wellbeing, reduce harm, and increase impact.
Before joining the MartinJenkins team, Renee served as Business Director of Ogilvy Change NZ, establishing the New Zealand branch of this international behaviour-change consultancy.
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