Over the years I have spoken to many people about the culture of their organisations. Or perhaps more accurately, been spoken to.

Many people.

I can count on the fingers of one hand how often I have believed what they were saying(or they believed what they were saying).

I think it is easy to get lost trying to understand the difference between what we believe we are and what we should be doing and what we really are and are actually doing. If I am charitable, I will add that it is not always deliberate.

The journey from where you are culturally to where you want to be is not completed with desire and belief alone. You have to do tangible things, real things. For example, I recall an organisation where the leadership used to talk, with sentimental pride, about a culture of communication and openness. Yet when I spent time with their workers, more often that not, the comments coming back were about them not having any information of what was going on with the company or the direction they were supposed to be taking. Some of the workers said they had not seen a board director for years. My recommendation was simple (and rather old fashioned):

  • Go for a walk and talk to staff. Ask questions. See if they want to ask you questions.
  • Invite staff you bump into up to your office for a coffee and a chat.
  • Deliver the post by hand to randomly selected departments once every few weeks (even if it is just a stationery catalogue).

The leadership went ahead with this. Do you know what? When I went back again, communication had improved and the workers felt that the directors were being more open with them. A real change in culture had been achieved – the culture of pretending to do something had been replaced by the culture of doing something.

So let us do something about culture. Something real and tangible. It starts with a simple test. I call it The Culture Test.

  1. Make a list of all the various statements contained in your marketing material about ‘our culture’.
  2. Add to the list all the statements you can remember being made in front of investors, customers or suppliers.
  3. Throw in the stuff that gets said at board meetings.
  4. Pull it all together into a power point presentation, make sure you do not name your company or use the standard format/fonts etc, reword it a little.
  5. Issue it to a random selection of actual workers (you remember them, the guys who do not go to the board meetings) and ask them to compare their company with the one described in the power point presentation. Importantly ask them to provide evidence – anecdotal if needs be – to support their comparison.

When the results are back in, find time at the next board meeting to discuss them with your peers. I am certain you will find lots of differences between the two positions. If you have the appetite, repeat the experiment with some key suppliers. If brave, with a handful of customers. I suggest you do not show the investors just yet.

When you do find the gaps (and some of them will be large) don’t be upset or down hearted. This is the first step in a journey that will dramatically improve your business.

Culture can be changed and improved; it starts with understanding and accepting where you really are.