Culture is the key to success

How an organisation operates dictates the success of what it does, and at the heart of this simple idea is ‘culture’ – we ignore it at our peril. Mel A Wombwell reports.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, according to leadership guru Peter Drucker.

It may seem strange that culture could be so important; after all, clear strategy, good products, market positioning, world-class execution and sound financial management are surely the keys to success? Culture, however, transcends them all.

Mel Wombwell – partner, business consulting, Grant Thornton UK LLP.
Mel Wombwell, partner – leadership, people & culture, Grant Thornton.

This has been underlined with high-profile news coverage of manufacturing organisations where despite their strategy and promises, the wrong culture has led to costly misdemeanours.

Culture is the environment in which people operate. Just as variables in the natural environment, such as sunshine and rainfall have a critical impact on a plant’s growth, the culture of an organisation dictates its success.

What is culture and why is it so hard to change?

Culture is often described as, ‘the way we do things around here’. This includes beliefs and assumptions about how an organisation should be run and how it interacts with customers and suppliers.

It also determines the relationships between management and the workforce, and how colleagues and departments work with each other. For this reason, and because an organisation’s methods and relationships are entrenched in years of tradition, culture can be hard to change.

Set up to fail

The idea that culture can be easily changed or simply ignored as new policies, plans and processes are introduced is clearly ridiculous, and yet it is the basis for virtually every change programme that we have come across.

Grant Thornton is co-headline sponsor The Manufacturer’s Annual Leaders Conference, the biggest manufacturing-led Industry 4.0 in the UK.

Why attend?

  • Brings together leaders from the manufacturing and engineering industries for two days of insightful discussion creating the opportunity to create true business change.
  • Content from senior stakeholders, as well as interactive workshops and roundtable debates.
  • More than 50 speakers and contributors offering cutting-edge insight
  • Network with a C-suite audience from across the industrial landscape

Millions of pounds are spent on transformation programmes even though they bear no relation to the current state of an organisation’s culture.

Unsurprisingly, the people on the receiving end are often inclined to reject these new ways of working; and, as a consequence, the response of a large organisation is often to fire its CEO for failing to impose the new programme.

Huge costs are then incurred to bring in a new CEO, who will need to be even more super human than the previous one and is almost bound to fail.

In our opinion, a brand new culture or new ways of working cannot be created out of thin air.

However, there are some effective ways to begin to understand and shift some patterns of behaviour in a positive direction.

The box below shows four recommendations from a toolkit of nine, which when used together provide the basis for an approach to creating sustainable change in organisations.

Tools for sustainable change:

  1. . Understand existing beliefs, stories, rituals, routines and things that symbolise the current culture
  2. Engage senior leaders with the current reality and expect them to actively lead and role model the changes they want to see
  3. Culture is not a linear pattern – it is an inter-connected web
  4. A coaching approach to leadership works wonders.

The culture of any organisation is fundamental to its success and sustainability. It is composed of all the beliefs, assumptions, behaviours and working practices of people at every level.

Many organisations make the mistake of believing that culture can be created or controlled; in fact, culture can only be influenced and moved in a positive direction when it is understood.

If this central truth is acted on by leaders and key individuals with the same focus as driving strategic growth, customer delight and operational efficiency, then the impact can change the whole course of an organisation’s future.