reading between the lines
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Peter Drucker is normally credited with the well-worn aphorism that ‘What gets measured gets managed’. We live in an age that increasingly looks for measurement in every aspect of life – from wellbeing apps to levels of employee absenteeism – and data’s role in decision-making looks only to increase.
There is, however, one exception. Culture. Suddenly we find ourselves in the world of broad sweeping statements – a toxic culture, a rotten culture, a culture of entitlement…. Organisations in all sectors get labelled often with very little evidence other than word-of-mouth commentary (which certainly has value) to back it up. In the recent PWC Annual Directors Survey, 64% of leaders said they used ‘gut feeling’ to gauge company culture.
Revealing the indicators of culture
What seems to be missing in those who talk about organisational culture is assessment beyond the ‘usual’ three evidence sets: 1: interviews (time consuming, subjective and costly); 2: whistleblowing (reactive, non-specific); and 3: employee opinion surveys (which tend to measure how you feel on the day about your role).
Measurement in most organisations falls into two categories – process efficiency (how quickly is a car built) or engagement (how often do you hear from your boss). But underpinning both these is the prevailing culture – usually defined as ‘the way we do things around here’. It seems strange that so little effort is given to finding out about how you go about making decisions, how you execute actions, how you work together.
Once you begin to measure culture in these terms you begin to reveal the evidence behind the sweeping generalisations about culture. If decisions are always made by the senior person in the room then you are unlikely to have a culture of initiative or risk-taking. If top fee-earners get away with breaking company rules, then the toxic culture characterised by the #MeToo movement will thrive.
You Get What You Give
Assessing culture through the lens of witnessed behaviours and making the link between those and the resultant culture unlocks an organisation’s ability to do something about it.
What I am advocating is that organisations actually work out what the behavioural drivers are of the culture they have (or desire) and then set about managing them. A vital first step will be measuring them using tools to identify ‘signals’ and key indicators.
The other day I heard the following statement from one of the CEOs that we work with: ‘We get the culture we get if we don’t manage it, the same way we get the financial performance we get if we don’t manage it’. He certainly got the vital importance of managing culture – but for many it remains a tricky concept to identify in the first instance, grapple with or realise what has changed over time.
Which brings me back to the originator of the quote ‘If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it’ – a version I actually prefer – the great physicist Lord Kelvin. A hugely far-sighted man in much of what he did he nevertheless failed to spot some obvious winners as his response to a request to join a new society illustrates…
“I was greatly interested in your work with kites; but I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning or of expectation of good results from any of the trials we hear of. So you will understand that I would not care to be a member of the Aeronautical Society.”
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Coode Associates supports and advises companies on leadership development, organisational effectiveness and shaping culture. If you’d like to know more about our work, we’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.