How to create a clear, shared cultural narrative

As your business grows, creating a culture that supports your business goals and helps you deliver the experience you want for your customers and clients is vital.

I define culture and 'how we be' around here. It is a combination of how it feels to work here, how we treat each other, what we demonstrate is important and how we go about doing the work.

Because culture is visceral, we must build a cultural narrative that codifies the culture e looking to develop so that we can hire the right people into ire the wrong people out of it.

Cultural narratives are best created with some combination of purpose, values, and vision to give a rich sense of why people should engage with the organisation, how it will be to be part of it and what the compelling future will look, sound and feel like.

The more people involved in creating the narrative, the better, providing that there is a genuine commitment and connection to each element. Creating this connection is more difficult than many people think, and if you are going to develop a strong culture that endures through your startup phase.

In our work with organisations of all sizes, a surprising number didn't get to where they wanted to be simply because they failed to define the strategic and cultural outcomes for the change programme.

You have to define your organisation's purpose, values, and vision clearly and ensure that everyone involved in the business understands why this narrative is important to them.  

Hedging and side-bet theory

Time and again, we see senior stakeholders in businesses taking a metaphorical step back from supporting the cultural narrative. In start-ups, this often involved the founder acting out of kilter with the values and justifying it because they are the boss. We call this hedging.

This cultural hedging often stems from a desire to protect their reputation if the new culture does not take hold. What they don't realise or acknowledge is the disastrous impact that their hedging has on the potential new culture.

It is entirely self-perpetuating. Because those involved don't want to be attached to a culture that doesn't stick, they don't fully engage. Because they don't fully engage, the programme doesn't stick.

The opposite of cultural hedging is side-bet theory. Based on the work of Howard Becker in the 1960s, side-bet theory tells us that when every single senior stakeholder is ready to risk their reputation on the new culture taking hold, this significantly increases the chances of it happening.

If you want to drive a new culture, here is what this means practically.

You and every single one of your senior stakeholders must become a sponsor of the new culture. You all actively promote the new culture but are also overt in your position that you are jointly and severally responsible for the success of the change programme.

If you are the sole leader in your business, you must invite people throughout the organisation to call you out the moment that they feel that you aren't setting the example culturally or that they think something else is becoming more important.

This open invitation really raises the stakes. Not only is the culture on the line now, but your reputation as a leader is too. By doing this, the narrative you have created to represent and propagate the culture you want in your organisation will become ever clearer and ever more shared among the other people in your business.

Richard Nugent is the author of new book The Alignment Advantage: Transform Your Strategy, Culture and Customers to Succeed (£19.99, Kogan Page).