Martin Brown, CEO of SME business growth advisory, Elephants Child, says that a good way to think about culture is to imagine your business as a boat with two engines: “One engine drives strategy, the other drives culture. If you’re only pushing the strategy lever, without the culture engine working with it, it can be slow, staccato or you’ll go around in circles.”
He also says that it is all too common for managers, and their advisers, to pay insufficient attention to culture, because by default, they tend to focus on the more tangible and logical elements of business, like strategic planning and budgeting.
What is your culture?
Martin recommends that all SME managers should invest the time to understand some of the research into business culture and the existing culture in their own business. He suggests doing this by working through a model called the ‘cultural web’, developed by Johnson and Scholes, which breaks culture down into six elements:
- Stories – the past events and people that are talked about, and in some cases, ‘immortalised’;
- Rituals and Routines – such as Friday afternoon drinks or the way exceeding targets are celebrated;
- Symbols – things like logos, how plush or frugal offices are, and dress codes;
- Organisational Structure – the organisational chart as well the ‘unwritten’ reporting lines and power centres;
- Control systems – such as financial, quality, and rewards systems;
- Power Structures – the people or departments that have the greatest influence on decisions or strategy.
By analysing each of these elements in detail, Martin reckons managers can identify things like cultural mismatches where behaviours and values are not reflective of the purpose of the business and don’t fit their clients needs. If you add to these elements things like the working environment, fun, commitment to each other and the businesses story in numbers you can really understand the business culture and take action to keep it positive and progressive.
As an example, he recalls working with a business in the automotive and engineering industry. In its early days, it had a small, male-dominated workforce with a buccaneering, ‘boys’ culture and informal symbols such as ‘page-3’ calendars on workshop walls. Over time, this business has successfully expanded and now boasts a multi-gender, multi-cultural workforce in the hundreds. Stories about the ‘good-old-bad-old-days’ have now become totally irrelevant. Management has had to make sure that the culture has shifted to the extent that these inappropriate stories and behaviours are rejected and simply out of place in the business today.
Culture in action
Charlie Allen, managing director of Shiner, a Bristol based distributor of skateboards, sports equipment and apparel with a workforce of almost 100, says that culture has been extremely important to his business, and in particular, helping to manage short duration spikes in workload – such as around Black Friday weekend.
At these times, warehouse staff can’t cope with the volumes of goods needing to be moved. Charlie says the business has worked hard to develop a culture of ‘we’re all in this together’, and staff from other departments, and sometimes even company directors, are called in at short notice to work in the warehouse to pick and pack goods and avoid shipping delays.
He’s very conscious that relying on other departments can’t be taken for granted. The all-hands-on-deck approach can be a surprise and highly unusual to some staff who have come from larger businesses with more rigid boundaries between roles. But because the approach is simply ‘normal’ within Shiner – it’s part of the culture – these staff quickly assimilate and adapt to their sometimes-foreign working conditions.
But Charlie says that this doesn’t just happen on its own. He makes sure senior staff pitch in during these periods of high activity so that it is obvious to everyone that the practice has been adopted right throughout the company. And he also works hard to make sure there is lots of informal contact between departments, which makes work interactions between them easier. Shiner has a skatepark, which staff can use during lunchtime or after work. It also holds after-work barbeque and skateboarding events on some Friday evenings to bring staff together and build ‘team-bonding’.