If you laid all the platitudes about organisational culture end to end, I’m pretty sure that you could circle the globe a few times. I’m thinking of;
“Culture is the way we do things here”
“Culture is what happens when the managers leave the room”
“Culture is the glue that holds organisations together.”
OK, “Yes” “Yes” and “Yes” in response to each of the above, but the fact remains that getting a feel for organisational culture is a bit like nailing frogspawn to the wall.
We can spot the signs of organisational culture in someone else’s workplace, but we can’t see it in our own. And yet it’s there and it’s a hefty presence determining how the organisation interacts with its employees, its clients and customers – and how it reacts to change. So, in order to plan for and manage change, it’s a good idea to have a feel for how things are, to know where we’re at.
I was planning a Silverback residential workshop entitled “Managing and Leading Security Organisations” and I wanted to start by considering organisational culture - how it manifests itself in the workplace, how it effects peoples’ behaviour, actions, attitudes and values. How managers and leaders see themselves and their roles, how things get communicated and how teams operate are determined by the type of culture that exists.
And that’s where a Culture Walk can help. Getting the participants to undertake a culture walk would comprise the first stage in a two-stage workshop assignment process. Here’s the brief that I set the participants.
A Culture Walk
A Culture Walk is a way of viewing an organisation through the eyes of someone who is not necessarily familiar with it in order to identify the culture of that organisation, its surface appearance, along with those beliefs and values which inform how people behave. In short, what it tells the onlooker about itself – the messages it projects. It is best done on two or three occasions at different times of day.
You may find the following prompts helpful.
- What do you notice immediately on entering the building?
- What’s the ambience like?
- Check out patterns of behaviour – how people are greeted, how do they speak to each other, or not.
- How is space allocated? Where are offices located?
- How much space is there for meetings, for socialising?
- Are there differences in space allocation between employees and managers?
- What's the furniture like - is it attractive and comfortable?
- What's on notice boards?
- Is there evidence of employees having been rewarded?
- What are peoples' desks and workstations like?
- Does everyone enter through the same doors?
- How is parking organised?
- How and where are smokers accommodated?
- How do people communicate? Verbally, by email or social media?
You can discover more about culture walks at:
Harry is on the programme and this was his response to the task.
A Culture Walk?
When I first saw the Culture Walk assignment that formed the initial part of the module, I thought, “This is rubbish.” Well, the word I used was a good deal stronger, but you get the idea.
After previous modules in which we’d completed operationally focused tasks, such as reviewing the response to the Gatwick drone’s incident and planning for the safety of Amazonian expeditions, unsurprisingly I wasn’t instantly turned on by the idea of looking at organisational culture.
Shortly after this, whilst at work, I noticed a courier bringing in some new uniforms. I watched him look around and I thought about what could be going through his mind as he looked at the posters and notices on the walls, what was on people’s desks and the conversations that he could hear. And I also wondered whether he adjusted how he dealt with us compared with other clients.
And this set me thinking about how important it is to not only understand your own organisation’s culture, but also to be able to identify the culture of another organisation in order to develop and maintain good relationships. I was beginning to think about organisational culture. That’s when I began to take it seriously and I looked at the prompt questions and started to try and see my own organisation through the eyes of an outsider.
The Culture Walk – Discussion outcomes
Since the workshop group was small it made sense to run the session as a discussion, allowing each of the participants five minutes to outline their findings and then focusing in on the topics and issues emerging. The topics and issues which follow are based on my notes.
- The immediate impact upon entering the building. “The foyer screams wealth.” There’s space and light and well-dressed people talking quietly. Very business-like.
- It’s impossible to get away from the branding messages. From the glass walls of offices to the waste bins all around the place. It’s all beautifully done, the messages etched into the glass panels.
Physical changes require behavioural changes
- Changes in the physical context dictate changes in the behaviour of security personnel.
- Some staff are adapting sooner than others to the change from a building site to a fully functioning retail area.
- As the site changes, so the behaviour of the security personnel has to change. But they don’t all change at the same rate – some are finding it really difficult.
The invisibility of cleaners
- They’re used to blending into the background – to being there, but not being there.
- People tend not to take any notice of the cleaners.
- “But they’re great sets of ears and eyes on the ground. They know their sections backwards and can spot anything out of the ordinary.”
- “If you want to know what’s happening, talk to the cleaners.”
Social distinctions, divisions and messages conveyed by;
- Office space is a major indicator of status. Senior managers inhabit the upper floors and have offices with expensive furniture and generous views.
- There are clear distinctions between uniformed and plain clothed staff, and fulltime and contract staff.
- Whilst there is a lot of dead space around the place security staff find themselves in little more than cupboards with little by way of furniture – “And they’re not in the best places in terms of availability and access.”
The informal side of organisations
- Every organisation has its informal side, its shadow side – the sets of contacts and relationships that you go to, to get things done, or to get around the normal processes.
- It’s the “Not what you know, but who…” side of organisations.
- In general, unless you’re senior management, parking is a nightmare. That is, unless you ask the right people and then, magically sometimes you get permission to park on site.
- But you keep schtum about how you managed to pull that trick off.
The Culture Walk is a simple tool. But in this case, it was successful in identifying and exploring a range of aspects of organisational culture as the observations above demonstrate. It led to a stimulating 60 minutes or so which laid the groundwork for our subsequent exploration of organisational culture. In the words of a friend it “earthed” some difficult and abstract concepts into the working experience and reality of the participants allowing them to appreciate just how pervasive and influential organisational culture is.
At the same time, it also produced wry insights, humour and observations, such as:
“The thing about security is that we’re pretty much disregarded until there’s an incident. Then, it seems, everybody wants you, everybody knows you.”
With thanks to the current Silverback Diploma cohort.