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How to waste your money on culture

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

Golfers are famous for wasting money on desperate attempts to improve their game – and executives can fall into the same trap with culture. Despite being a major theme of regulators for the last few years, there is little evidence of genuine shift in corporate cultures. To understand why, let’s compare culture with a golfer trying to improve his or her swing:

  1. A golfer already has a swing formed by all their past experiences and learning, and it consistently produces the same sort of shots – good or bad. Similarly, a firm already has a culture based on its past experiences and learning, and it consistently produces the same sort of results – good or bad.

  2. The golfer is part of the swing and can’t actually see how its components – arms, legs and body – operate together in what is a complex interconnected system. They have to use a coach or a video camera to get feedback. Similarly, a firm doesn’t see how the components of its own culture hang together – although it is often obvious to external observers - like the regulators and, ironically, to the staff involved

  3. Many golfers read tips and tricks in books and magazines, but if they try them without external feedback they cannot observe the impact of changes to their swing and may actually get worse results. Many executives read management tips and tricks in books and magazines, but their tinkering also often fails. Platitudes in corporate communications (including TV adverts) are legion – embarrassing because no-one really believes them.

  4. Finally, the killer. Golfers have incredibly clear and consistent goals for their swing –usually accuracy or power. Culture change is usually driven by the vague desire to be virtuous (or, frequently, appear to be virtuous). The requirement to make money is ‘hushed up’ in culture discussions, even though all firms have a clear legal obligation to pursue profitability (or, at the very least, viability).

Genuine culture change is actually quite straightforward. All it needs is:

  1. A clear set of goals for the new culture that integrate congruently with the corporate need to generate income and personal needs around security, ambition and rewards.

  2. Recognition that a firm already has a culture: it’s what is driving the current results, whether good or bad.

  3. External expert feedback on the current culture and how it might be changed. (We see lots of culture audits providing questionable feedback, but very little expertise). Involving staff in discussions at an early stage can also help reveal the reality.

  4. Implementation of tangible changes that modify the current system to generate the different behaviours that produce the clear goals required. The tricky bit here is to make sure that the new behaviours provide at least the same benefit to people (consciously or unconsciously) as the old ones. Executives can spend forever thinking about the pros and cons of their desired changes, and then wonder why they are not received with unanimous glee when released.

If you are confident that you have all four of the above, you have a reasonable chance of changing your corporate culture. If you don’t have that confidence, don’t waste your money!


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