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There is so much talk today about culture in business.  There are lots of people searching for the elusive holy grail of business and yet find it perpetually escaping them.  

Sometimes I think that is because we over complicate it and are looking for something that is more complex than what it actually is.   The corporate or business culture is really the collective behaviour and values that drive the organisation’s behaviour and hopefully all those within it.   To simplify it, we could say it is just ‘how we do things around here’ or even better ‘how we play in the sandpit’.   Culture includes all those messages (both overt and covert) about what really matters in the business.

The importance of good culture cannot be overstated, however it is often mis-described as a strength.  A strong culture can be strong at either end of the spectrum – either healthy or toxic.  The strength of a culture dictates its power to drive behaviour, decision making and events, because the strength is directly related to the glue that bonds people together through shared ideas, values and behaviours.  Conversely, a weak culture is not always bad or unhealthy.   It can mean that the environment is unstable, however it can also create the ideal environment for change because it demonstrates more flexibility and adaptability.

The thing about culture is that every organisation has it, whether it was engineered or not.  Unless companies actually think about, talk about and work on culture it will simply evolve over time, usually building on the personal values of the business founders.  When a company is new, there tends not to be time to think about or work on culture as we are too busy working on where to find the next customer and increase revenue and profits.   Culture and values are however, constantly changing, although the change is often gradual and can go unnoticed until someone realises that the ‘wonderful culture we once had is lost’ and it is too late.

It is not easy or simple to measure Culture.  We all know about KPIs used to measure operational performance, profitability and growth.   KPIs can be achieved in any culture but how they are achieved reflects the culture and it is probable that the measuring processes are not designed to pick that up.  A good first step in measuring culture is to make sure that people understand what your values are, which means that they can easily recognize behavior and decisions that are inconsistent or consistent with the values.

Most company values I see are a generic list of vague words or phrases that no one would object to, but no one understands either.   You may see them displayed on the corporate walls.   They are meant to underpin behaviours, decision making and performance, yet when asked to speak to them employees cannot articulate how they do so.  To get ir right, try following the mantra of ‘keep it simple, be real and involve your team’ in their development.   I have worked with one Real Estate team who went through this process and eventually came up with their slogan of…. “The GOOD property people”.   They were able as a team to define what this means to the team, the business and clients and customers in terms of behaviours and attitudes.  Over time their Culture became definable and measurable in terms of the outcomes for both.

The value of “being GOOD” now pervades this very successful award winning business.   Something tells me they have both a strong and a healthy culture.