Culture versus process

By Ross Langdell, 20 December 2022 | 5 mins read

Every day, all over the world, the same scene is playing out. A puzzled and disappointed management team is trying to understand why their shiny new processes haven’t been taken on board. After all, the changes are an improvement; a way to work smarter and more efficiently. Yet here they sit by the wayside, as the team chugs on with their old ways of working.

This battle between culture and process is waged in every business, regardless of its size. Rightly or wrongly, an embedded culture will always come out on top when pitted against ‘better’ processes, no matter how brilliant or beneficial they are. So, what’s happening here and how can you tackle the problem? As so often in life, a little bit of listening and compromise can be game-changing.

Take the Commander of the 1st Airborne Division and I Airborne Corp in the Second World War, portrayed by Dirk Bogarde in the 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far, who had the difficult job of leading American, British and Polish allied units during Operation Market Garden. Riven with cultural differences and fiercely nationalistic, the troops did not respond well when the British Army attempted to impose its traditional ways of working. The Commander quickly realised that the only way to achieve change was to embrace his troops’ existing culture. Instead of forcing new processes upon them, he shrewdly fitted them around what was already there, creating trust, understanding and buy in to the changes he was implementing.

Don’t dictate. Integrate.

The Commander certainly had the right idea about culture vs process. He realised that overlaying new process onto existing culture won’t work unless pre-existing cultural norms are acknowledged.

Whether the existing culture is good or bad, a ‘top down’ approach is destined to fail. When head office dictates orders from on high – no matter how benignly – they are unlikely to get embedded. Although there are some individuals who will adopt them, there is no blanket buy in. Many will pay lip service to the new processes, but continue to work in the same way they always have done. This means the existing culture continues to bubble up through the cracks preventing the foundations of change from forming. The key is to take a leaf out of the Commander’s book and be a little more conciliatory.

At The Maverick Group, we’ve worked with organisations ranging from global corporates to SMEs to find the delicate balance that leads to successful mergers, acquisitions and change. And we’ve found that understanding the true landscape of a business is absolutely key. What’s working? What isn’t? What do employees need? How engaged are they with management and the business? It’s only worth making plans when you know the answers to these questions.

Listen. Then act.

A simple path to failure and staff disengagement is to listen to your employees feedback, and do nothing.

There are various ways of capturing this information including employee surveys (regular pulse surveys, 360° feedback, annual employee surveys) and focus groups. The key is to gather insight from all levels of the business. Share these findings and act on them.

Once you have the data, you can start to tailor the culture with a view to introducing processes into a more receptive environment further down the line. But remember that any ‘top-down’ approach requires a ‘bottom-up’ twin. In other words, cultural changes must be introduced from the ground up and embedded in the day-to-day life of the company, with all managers buying into anything new. Having board members own individual culture pillars can work well, especially if there’s an incentive in place to encourage success.

Communication. Backed up with communication.

True cultural change takes a long time, delivered through careful communication plans that really engage with employees so you can start to initiate change and start to see that shift.

When the team sees that leaders are supporting change and are behind it 100%, they’re more likely to follow suit. A high-profile launch can raise awareness business-wide and create momentum, so your plans don’t fall flat. It’s a good opportunity to make sure that everyone understands the bigger picture: where you are now, where you want to be, the benefits of change and why it’s important. Honesty and transparency are critical when it comes to telling the story.

Additionally, you need to plan and prepare for constant uplifts to propping up the shifts you want to see. Providing regular communications or engagement touchpoints will reingite the workforce and ensure key messaging is at the forefront of what you are delivering.

Invest. Then stick with it.

Culture change takes time, investment and serious thought – it won’t happen overnight. Underestimating the challenge is a classic mistake, leading to dismal failure. Cultural pillars need to be well established across every aspect of the business, from roles and functions to demographics and geographies. Get it right and exciting stuff starts to happen.

By working with an existing culture to construct a better one, you acquire the goodwill to open the door to greater change. Then, you’ll have the freedom to finally get those processes implemented.

The Maverick Group’s Engage unit has helped scores of organisations to survive and progress. It all comes down to a simple fact: culture trumps process. Get culture right – so it reflects your business now and in the future – and introducing those new ways of working suddenly becomes feasible. Although there are no off the shelf answers, we can work out what’s best for your particular situation. Give us a call to get the ball rolling.