How to harness organisational culture for ‘high performance’

Organisational culture shapes the behaviours, guides decision-making, and ignites innovation.

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Organisations have for a long time grappled with the question; ‘How can we improve our performance? The answer to this question is quite critical, particularly in today’s business environment which is fraught with challenges ranging from high production costs, corruption, unpredictable regulatory environment, among others.

It is little wonder then, that firms must seek and pursue with vigor any leads towards the levers that can be used to move the performance dial in their favour. Without a doubt, one such lever is organisational culture,  which encompasses foundational values that reflect the expectations to be attained. It is incredibly powerful.

It shapes the behaviours, guides decision-making, and ignites innovation. It has been loosely captured as ‘the Way we do things around here’. When effectively harnessed, it becomes a formidable catalyst for success, propelling companies to greater accomplishment.

One of the most quoted companies when discussing matters culture is Google. Google's culture is known to celebrate 'Innovation and Creativity’. The company's '20 percent time' policy, which encourages employees to allocate a portion of their work hours to personal projects, has been the cradle for groundbreaking products such as Gmail and AdSense.

Similarly, Netflix's culture of 'freedom and responsibility' empowers employees with decision-making autonomy while holding them accountable for their actions.

The power of culture is transformative. That is why great organisations do not let their culture form without intervention. It is too important to be left to chance! The business takes great interest in this factor through a very deliberate and elaborate process of culture management.

The strategic deployment of culture is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each organisation's culture is a unique mosaic, intricately woven from its values, mission, and the collective essence of its people. It is imperative for organisations to comprehend and synchronise their culture with their strategic ambitions.

As we define organisational culture, it’s imperative to deep dive into its core values and the behaviours and how they inspire us. Some common tenets include the cultivation of an environment that is conducive to risk-taking and perpetual learning.

This could manifest in the creation of safe spaces for employees to experiment without fear of repercussions, the provision of continuous learning opportunities, and the acknowledgment and celebration of innovative ideas and solutions, irrespective of their origin within the organisational hierarchy.

Communication plays a pivotal role in the promotion of these values. It is incumbent upon leaders to consistently convey the importance of innovation and clarify the role each employee plays in achieving this collective goal.

Such transparency helps employees visualise their contribution to the grander scheme, thereby enhancing their engagement and motivation. Furthermore, an organisation's policies and procedures should reflect its values. For instance, if an organisation holds work-life balance in high regard, it should implement policies that endorse flexible working arrangements.

To further cement culture within the organisational fabric, it must be interwoven into systems and practices, encompassing recruitment, performance management, and reward mechanisms.

For an organisation to thrive, it must be agile and responsive to changes in the market, technology, and workforce demographics. It is recommended for an organisation to conduct regular introspection to assess whether its culture still serves its purpose or if it has become an impediment to progress.

This usually involves soliciting feedback from employees, reviewing outcomes of cultural initiatives, or benchmarking against industry best practices.

A comprehensive review may mean updating the company’s mission statement to reflect new thoughts and ambitions, revising policies to be more inclusive, or introducing new rituals that celebrate the diversity of thought and background.

A practical example of this could be a tech company that started with a strong focus on innovation but finds that its rapid growth has led to silos forming within the organisation. Through introspection, the company realises that collaboration has taken a backseat, hindering cross-functional innovation.

To evolve its culture, the company might introduce collaborative platforms, cross-departmental sessions, and innovation labs where employees from different areas can work together on short term initiatives or projects.

This process of cultural refinement ensures that the organisation’s culture remains a living, breathing aspect of its identity, one that continues to drive performance and provide a competitive edge.

It is about maintaining the core values that define the company while also being flexible enough to adapt to new challenges and opportunities. By doing so, an organisation can sustain its relevance and effectiveness, fostering a work environment that is conducive to growth, satisfaction, and success.

By meticulously defining, communicating, reinforcing, and evolving it any success becomes inevitable. Echoing the words of Peter Drucker, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast," it is essential for organisations to integrate culture into the very heart of their strategic blueprint. The bad news is that a huge percentage (estimated at 80 percent) of culture transformation initiatives fail.

The great news is that, if done professionally and competently, success will result in long-term health and growth of the organisation.

Dr Fred Nyawade, PhD | Head of People and Culture at Siginon Group. Email: [email protected]

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