If culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast… what’s for lunch and dinner?

…culture has design for lunch and devours your precious vision for dinner.

Our efforts to create change, to impact mindsets, habits and behaviour, and to embed new ideas, stands and falls on the culture of the users. Sinek encourages us to ‘Start With Why’, but the process of creating a sustaining culture also requires sufficient attention to the ‘how’ before embarking on the ‘what’.

I was the staff development day presenter, I was facing a hostile crowd. The leadership had a vision (the ‘why) for a community learning space for the Year 9 cohort. For many months, these teachers had been watching the new building (the ‘what’) take shape in the heart of their campus. The staff walked into the new space for the first time that morning. Rumour abounded. I became the object of their fear and frustration. One random outsider (me!) presenting workshops the day before school started was unlikely to address the desired culture (not the optimal ‘how’).

Culture is described as ‘the way we do things around here’. It is evident in shared values and beliefs and supporting behaviours. Culture explains how a community is knitted together and how it is experienced, positively or negatively. The desired culture of a school or organisation needs to be the product of strategic design, if not, it develops by default. This depends on whether or not the leadership has deliberately articulated the vision and then followed through with advancing complementary practices.

The physical place of work and learning is the container for human activity. When embarking on a new project, design intentions present a tangible expression of the vision, providing clarity on the ‘why’. From that starting point, the aspirations can be expressed in the desire for innovative buildings and spaces, with flexible and adaptive furniture and technology. This is an important start, but what is the strategy to transform human practice and establish organisational norms in today’s changing workplace? Without deliberate attention to the ‘how’, it is likely that default practices will be shoe-horned into the new design. It’s like how is the neglected middle child in the ‘Start with Why’ family.

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The ‘how’ is the scaffold of culture, and rests on two elements:

  • Strategy for growing people
  • Organisational and system processes to support the vision.

In my experience these critical factors are often hastily addressed in the weeks leading up to the planned completion date, or worse, they are an after-thought. Ideally,from the moment the vision is given breath, the ambitions for the new workplace culture and supporting organisational structures are integrated into every aspect of organisational life, with time carved out for strategy, planning, communication and professional growth.

I love working in that essential ‘how’ space.


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