We use cookies to personalise and enhance your experience on our site. View our Privacy Policy for more information or manage your personal preferences in our Cookie Consent Tool. By using our site, you agree to our use of cookies.

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
  • Creating psychological safety
  • Innovation & learning
  • Developing more of a performance culture
  • Wellbeing
  • Simplification and ruthless prioritisation
  • Improving diversity and building a sense of belonging through inclusive leadership

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 - Improving collaboration across boundaries

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 - Creating psychological safety

How comfortable do people feel sharing gaps in their knowledge and competence?

How open are people to input and feedback from different functions?

How safe do people feel to challenge the status quo?

Some of the most important conversations in any organisation are the ones that people are avoiding.

It is natural for people to filter what they say for fear of how it will be perceived. It is also really easy for leaders to unintentionally send ‘shut up signals’.

This is one aspect of culture that every organisation can improve on. We will all have examples of have people who are holding back on important insights that could be a game changer.

Creating an environment for more open communication about challenges, concerns and opportunities is one of the most important steps in unlocking the full potential of your team.

Our work with clients to help them improve psychological safety focuses on two key leavers of change.

First we raise leaders awareness of the concept, and how they can affect it – positively and negatively. Teaching them techniques to make it easier for people to speak up by seeking out challenge. Encouraging them to nurture it by praising courage in speaking up – irrespective of whether they agree. Contracting around the need to challenge each other when a colleague is behaving in a way that will discourage it.

Then we help them raise awareness of it in the wider organisation. Introducing the concept and why it is important. Asking people to reflect on and score their psychological safety. Provided the environment is safe, we’ve found that just getting people to reflect on conversations they’re avoiding, encourages them to immediately become more vocal. The impact is almost immediate.

Characteristic Three - 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 recognise 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 Four - Developing 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 Five - 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 Six - 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 Seven - Improving diversity and building a sense of belonging through inclusive leadership

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 seven characteristics of your culture over the next 12 months, which would have the greatest impact for you?

Tell us what you think about our podcasts
If you have any thoughts about the topics we've covered in this collection, the insights we've shared or you have ideas for future podcast episodes we'd love to hear from you.

Ready for more insights like this?
To be among the the first to hear about more new developments, insights and events from MF, please submit your details below and we'll add you to our mailing list.

Continue reading

Connect with our community

Join our growing network today - and receive the latest insights and research from the MF team - by following us on LinkedIn.