Your Company Culture is like a Chart-topping Album

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November 12, 2019

Name a song that is stuck in your head at this very moment. That new chart-topper that has captured your attention, that you’ve just added to your playlist, whose artist you’ve just followed on social media, and that you’ve just recommended to your friends. It’s the type of song that, before you know it, you’ve subconsciously learnt all the words to and can’t hold back from singing at the top of your lungs with all your mates at the local pub… or from gathering cohorts of strangers for a flash mob Gangnam Style extempore.

Music is a manifestation of culture; the ability to unite people, shape social behaviours, create shared experiences, and there is almost always someone we look to set the tempo. They are the source and the force of the next big movement. You “Beliebers” out there will understand that sense of connectedness, longing, commitment and meaning that you find, in something that even comes with its own language.

A few months or even weeks down the line, that same song has now exhaustedly been played over and over again on the radio, and so begins the exasperated routine of flicking the station and hitting that skip button.

The song no longer sparks the same joy, and its message starts to lose its effect on us.

Now let’s imagine the radio as an organisation, with its own tempo-setting artists (perhaps the leaders, perhaps the employees), and the music that keeps blaring from its speakers is the song of ‘culture change’. The first time we heard it (culture change) we were intrigued, had an emotional reaction, we looked at others for their reactions, we wanted to talk about it, to know what it would mean for the future, to participate and learn what it would do to our “rhythm”. Needless to say, it made the charts; it was at the top of our thinking, but sure enough, the song was played over and over again and now the message of ‘culture change’ has just become more noise than music. So who do we turn to as the source and the force for the next big thing?

Let’s look at music again; do the artists set the tone and decide on the shifts in composition, performance, and ultimately shape our music culture? Or do we as the audience actually determine what the artist will do next, in response to the culture we create?

Who owns music? The same can be asked in our organisation; who owns culture?

The short answer, metaphors aside; no-one and everyone.

Of course, that’s trite and not going to get us to a point where we can change things that have calcified, distorted to something that isn’t helping an organisation thrive into a more positive future, or have become so toxic it is making people ill.

We have all heard horror stories of cultures that are broken. Enron, the NHS in Mid-Staffs, Uber HQ,  and more recently WeWork. All cultures of indulgence, neglect, lacking support, misdemeanours, sexism, abuse and dysfunction.

So, who’s to blame?

We are quick to pin it on the organisation; its processes and policies, and a lack of leadership. The organisation (in turn) looks to their employees as the source; a lack of initiative, poor recruitment choices, a need to be micromanaged, or simple distrust.

Enter the culture change initiatives.

One problem with what we understand culture change to be is that ‘it’ – like interventions of any kind – are too often associated with the ‘imagined’ system.

By imagined system, we mean the structures and processes that exist within organisations and having been created by others. We bring them into being in the absence of certainty, or when we’ve lost the ability to interact on a human level. An expense process (an imagined system) has been introduced in place of trust (a human system).

Imagined systems are manifested by processes, with efficiency as their goal/aim (a cookie-cutter approach).  It negates the need to build trust with 1000 employees and have them invent their own process, as human as it might be.

The question then: Is the process there to protect employees or the organisation? I’ll leave you to ponder that one.

It is true that some organisations require mandatory safety procedures to protect themselves and other people.  However, whether you build an organisation on governance,  micromanagement, or that more human system, you will have people delivering the process (in harmony with digital and other tools of course).

If your culture isn’t strong enough in the right ways, you will have people merely following the instruction manual, and then falling short when it comes to adaptations and exceptions.

With very few people exceeding expectations or realising their full potential – not to mention gaining fulfilment from their work and offering customers and colleagues their very best at all times.  

It’s at this point that organisations fail to realise their capacity for innovation and competitive advantage. Even then, not everything can be accounted for or planned, but that’s when we need a culture of trust, creativity, commitment, recognition and accountability.

So what we might argue is a cultural intervention is in actual fact an intersection between the imagined system and the human system; It helps us to understand how our processes have shaped our people, and vice versa. A culture of inclusion will see people having an influence on, and adapting processes, whereas a culture of exclusion will be layered with bureaucracy, levels of decision making, and power in only one place or with one person.

We’ve moved on from the organised fan club of our musical idols, and are now in a world where Myles Sanko is direct messaging us on Twitter in response to our feedback; the human system has the potential to hack the imagined system every day. We are more connected, informed and enabled than ever before.

This collective spirit doesn’t negate leadership within our organisations, rendering them leader-less;  in fact, if we galvanise that collective spirit within the human system, our organisations will be more leader-full, and thereby powerful for all the right reasons.

The imagined system that is organisational culture, is hard to change, but people can change. Both in the way they interact and connect to purpose. Initiating culture change will help people better understand the culture they have, wish for, and how it adds value, but will always be accountable to the collective human system.  

So who owns culture? Well, we all do…

Perry Timms is joining us on Totem Talks at 1pm, 18th November. Totem Talks is an online series of interviews with some of the best minds in the culture space. If you’re looking for authentic and honest ideas, rebellious thinking, and the potential to rock the boat – this is the talk for you.