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Evolving Your Culture One Skill at a Time

John Bull
February 29, 2024

(Please Note: if you prefer you can listen to an audio version of the article here)

Where is your biggest opportunity for cultural improvement and how can you change things quickly? MF's John Bull takes a closer look...

One of the trends we’re noticing in the culture leadership space, is clients approaching us with a goal to improve a specific aspect of their culture.

The most common interventions we’ve worked on are:

  • Improving collaboration across boundaries
  • Innovation & learning
  • Creating more of a performance culture
  • Wellbeing
  • Simplification and ruthless prioritisation
  • Diversity and inclusion

Each of these are underpinned by behaviours and ways of working that require deliberate focus. What’s become apparent is that there is something quite powerful about the clarity of focusing on one aspect of culture at a time. By doing so, you can make a lot of progress very quickly.

The aim of this article is to help you assess your own culture against each of these characteristics, and reflect on what your biggest opportunity for improvement might be.

Characteristic One - Building your collaboration ‘muscle’

High performance is almost always a collective endeavour, requiring coordinated effort across multiple functions.

The problem is that, as humans, we are wired to be tribal, and collaboration across boundaries, like different areas of functional expertise and hierarchies, does not come naturally. We have to work at it, and it certainly doesn’t just happen because we have ‘teamwork’ on our values.

The fact it is difficult makes it a powerful source of competitive advantage if you can crack it.

Two features stand out from organisations who have made it a strength:

  1. They’re explicit about the importance of collaboration as a pillar of their strategy. People are evaluated on the quality of their collaboration.
  2. They invest in training all individuals in collaboration skills such as listening up and speaking up.

Take Pixar, as an example, who have transformed animation by combining the expertise of computer programming and storytelling. They use processes like ‘brains trust’ meetings to encourage a culture of seeking out input and challenge to improve our ideas. They also train all staff in skilled candour.

Characteristic Two - Innovation and learning

As the world has become more unpredictable, the ability to adapt and innovate has become more important. This is now the most common change goal clients approach us with.

We’re lucky enough to work with some very innovative organisations, and one thing they do is measure it. For years 3M has challenged every product category to ensure at least 25% of revenue comes from products introduced in the last 5 years.

You have to recongise innovation is a skill, and help people get better at it. We’re struck by how much energy the BBC, for instance, has always put into nurturing this skill. Red Bull Racing has made their skill in debriefing the main driving force behind their relentless pace of innovation and continuous improvement.  

Finally, you have to take time to listen to what is getting in the way of innovation, and address these blocks. For instance, we’ve been working with some teams in the NHS recently to look at how they can find a way to allow them to test, fail and learn.

Characteristic Three - Creating more of a performance culture

Sustaining high performance over time requires a dual focus on performance and wellbeing. A lot of organisations are good at one, but not the other.

In cultures with a strong focus on performance, leaders are skilled in what we call the 3 Fs of Focus, Freedom and Feedback.

Organisations that lack a performance culture, often struggle with feedback and accountability. In these cases, the leadership skill we’ve found that has the most significant impact in raising their effectiveness is courageous conversations. By which we mean building people’s confidence and skill to have more honest performance conversations. Importantly, if done well, these skills also improve people’s feeling of wellbeing by helping them achieve a sense of accomplishment.

Characteristic Four - Wellbeing

“Before we dare people to achieve their full potential, we first have to show them we care.”
George Kohlrieser, author of ‘Care to Dare’.

One of the most damaging myths of high performance, is a mistaken sense that we have to make a choice between wellbeing and optimal performance. “I know wellbeing is important, but we really need to see improvement from this team!”

Wellbeing isn’t just about happiness and relaxation. In a work context, it comes from intentionally creating an environment which helps people flourish - an environment in which people feel inspired and supported to challenge themselves to achieve things they feel good about and which help the organisation.

All of the features that contribute to our wellbeing have a high correlation with optimal performance. Playing more to our strengths, finding ways to boost our energy, increasing people’s sense of purpose and building positive relationships to name but a few.

Most leaders want to support wellbeing, but simply don’t know how. This is actually a relatively quick win. We’ve found it works best when clients focus on equipping leaders to create both a high performing and high wellbeing culture. Thanks to Shruti from Downing for this phraseology.  

For those interested in exploring the contributors to wellbeing further, email us on highperformance@managementfutures.co.uk for a copy of our Wellbeing Questionnaire based on the work of Martin Seligman.

Characteristic Five - Simplification and ruthless prioritisation

“Prioritise A, B and C. Then discard C”
Sheryl Sandburg in talking about Facebooks approach to ruthless Prioritisation.

Effort by itself will not create high performance. It has to be focused effort. It’s hard to do anything really well, when we’re trying to do too much.

In addition to trying to do too much, unintended workload created by ineffective processes can make it feel like we’re trying to run through waste deep mud.

Three things stand out from clients we see as being really good at simplicity and focus

The first is total alignment. This really struck me the other day when I was walking through a Selfridges store, who we’ve had the privilege of working with for the last few years. Despite a huge range of different departments, everything felt aligned behind a purpose to create a joyful shopping experience. I found myself grinning...and I hate shopping!

Brendan McCullum has transformed the performance and visible fun of the England Test Match team by asking a simple question: ‘What might be possible if we removed fear?’

The second is a mechanism for prioritising and saying no.

British Rowing use the question ‘will it make the boat go faster?’ to guide every decision.

This has been adopted by Red Bull Racing, who prioritise improvement projects by how many quarters of a second it will improve lap times. Out of countless improvement projects they could work on in the 3 months of the off season, they typically pick a maximum of 3-4. Getting clear on what we’re going to say no to is every bit as important as what we’re going to say yes to.

Finally, open up a dialogue with people on the front line about “what is getting in the way of you doing a great job?”  

Characteristic Six - Unlocking the power of greater diversity and inclusion

The evidence for the positive impact of a diverse workforce on creativity is overwhelming. Particularly as our customer base becomes more diverse.

Organisations that struggle in this space, often have no idea about the barriers they’re unintentionally creating.  

To help, we generally start with a listening exercise. Engaging the people they want to hear more from in a confidential conversation around how welcome and included they feel in the environment.

We then work with both the leaders and the underrepresented talent to help create an environment where everyone can flourish.

Looking at our culture projects over the last 3 years, few interventions have been as powerful and motivating as those where we’ve helped clients to increase the diversity of voices around the table.

Creating an environment where everyone flourishes, has a massively positive impact on everyone.

Which just leaves one final question:  

If you were able to wave a magic wand, and transform any one of the above six characteristics of your culture over the next 12 months, which would have the greatest impact for you?


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