Book Review:

Culture Shift

by Kirsty Bashforth

10 December 2022

Given how important culture is, the author asks a key question: why isn’t more done to ensure it works for, rather than against, what the organisation is trying to achieve? Too often culture is simply regarded as a ‘given’ – almost something to be put up with, that cannot be controlled. And yet it is in many ways it is the lifeblood of the organisation – a significant force for good or ill. Based on her work as a consultant, senior manager and researcher, the author offers plenty of suggestions to give culture – and its development – a premium place in any organisation.

The book is structured in 4 sections: why bother? setting it up; the hard yards; and getting to the other side. Together these represent the journey any concerned organisation should have in taking ownership of, and investing in, developing a strong and positive culture – something that simply isn’t done in most organisations. The book is full of case studies – most based on her personal career working in or being a consultant for a wide range of organisations. And very helpfully, her final chapter ‘Book on a Page’ is a list, on one page, of her key suggestions.

As the author says: “this book is vital to understanding your current culture, what it takes to shift it, and how to ensure that shift is lasting”. So if you are dissatisfied with your organisation or team’s culture, and want to do something about it, then this is the book for you.

strongly recommended if you’re interested in:

& here are the key takeaways...

Culture is what happens when the CEO isn’t in the room”
(John Collison, Stripe)

Culture, strategy, operations and ownership

A lot of leadership is devoted to strategy and management to operations, and how the two connect. So there is often ownership for both – ownership for strategy, and ownership for management. But where is the ownership for culture? Throughout any organisation, it will be relatively easy to find people with ‘strategy’ or ‘operations’ in their title – but how often does ‘culture’ appear in someone’s title, or even in their Job Description? Bashforth thinks such omission and a lack of ownership is a real mistake, which allows culture to run unfettered, unregulated, unmanaged, through the organisation

Culture as unofficial, informal governance and context

Because culture is not formally regulated, it does not mean it is incidental to the organisation’s performance. Quite the reverse. It is the very fact that it is usually unregulated that means it has such a dramatic impact. Culture is endemic, and all other activity has to work within the prevailing cultural context; and because such culture (or cultures) are unregulated, they are less consciously known, and less managed. Imagine Department X, with a manager, 6 staff, a set of tasks and responsibilities, and a budget. It would be noticed, regulated, and accountable. None of this tends to apply to the organisation’s culture: there is rarely a Culture Department, with dedicated culture specialist staff, with clear responsibilities, action plans and a budget….

Culture, trust and empowerment

When the culture is what is wanted, and aligns with the organisation’s values and purpose, then the impact of that culture is positive and powerful – and perhaps more cost effective to run. For example, people can be trusted more, so there is less requirement for formal supervision and regulation. People are more empowered, and more likely to control, and accept accountability for, their own behaviour and performance. Conversely, it is hard to imagine an organisation with a poor, inhibiting culture promoting trust and empowerment.  

Alignment of culture, specialists, and decision making

There are many organisations where there might be a misfit between high levels of qualified expertise, and cultural priorities. Those with such expertise may value the autonomy it brings, where the individual trusts and values their own judgement, and enjoys making their own decisions. Where the use of such autonomy is consistent with the company’s culture and performance expectations, then such staff will be aligned. But if a sub-optimising culture exists, where experts make their own decisions apparently ‘on behalf of’ the organisation, but in fact in their own interests and specialist training, there will be misalignment

Organisations focus on the why, and the what, yet pay little attention to the culture – which often dominates the how

Behaviour and process is a two way street

Any organisation’s culture is essentially dominated by its workforce behaviours – often in disregard or rules, requirements, routines, and systems – summarised here as processes; so there may be a case for developing behaviour-friendly processes – which might have limited the Great Resignation of recent times. But it is also true that good processes, over time, can lead to changed behaviour; one of the powerful and effective ways that South Africa overcame apartheid and developed a ‘rainbow nation’ was through the process of Truth and Reconciliation, bringing all groupings, so often in hostility, together. The same principle has been applied effectively in the Civil Rights movement in America, and in the Good Friday initiative and Peace movements in Northern Ireland. But the key requirement in creating a process-led culture is sustained commitment over time.

Creating culture as a habit

Too many companies, if they address culture at all, do so as a one off set piece: a ‘call to arms’ presentation by the CEO – maybe in the form of a video; an away day for senior executives; posters placed on the wall. But these make a passing impact; they are surface rather than deep. To be valid and important, to be seen as valid and important, they have to be continuously emphasised – to be part of the daily fabric: to become embedded (since that is what the unofficial culture is)– the new culture, to replace the old, has to exist at the same deep, embedded level. And if this sounds more like hard work, in fact, it may not be: compare two types of driving: once a year, or every day. When something becomes a habit, it is easier, not more difficult.

The four stages of competence model

The four stage model, developed in the 70s by Noel Burch, suggest development moves through these 4 stages, chronologically: unconscious incompetence (where people don’t know they are incompetent); conscious incompetence (where their incompetence is revealed); conscious competence (working hard to create the required competence); and unconscious competence (where the competence is sufficiently embedded and in place) to be automatic. This is a useful model for improving and embedding culture – especially where the workforce is generally unaware of how their typical ‘normal’ behaviours support a culture of incompetence… 

Culture shouldn’t be left to chance; it requires focus and an ongoing maintenance plan

External v internal; assumptions about ownership and responsibility

I was once stuck in a traffic jam, and my passenger innocently asked, in a frustrated tone, “where does all this traffic come from?” And the obvious answer is: “from people like us”. We are a contributor. And yet it is a common assumption that we see the problem through a window, rather than through or in a mirror. We see ‘the problem’ as ‘out there’, beyond our window, and ‘nothing to do with us’. We disassociate ourselves from ownership, blaming others rather than being part of the collective responsibility. And so it often is with culture. For example, “the culture needs to change…but not me”. In any organisation, everyone is part of the culture, and impacting on it: we are all part of the traffic jam… 

The default of acceptance

I was chatting to someone recently about a work-based issue, and she said: “that just the way things are”, and later said “so that’s how these things work”. In both cases, her comments were criticisms of the status quo, but more importantly, indicated resignation with this situation, a sense of demoralised acceptance. When I asked her what she wanted to do about that, she shrugged. In fact, as she said, it came as a surprise – even a revelation – that she might be able to do something, or even be expected to do something. If you read the book ‘Toxic’ by Clive Lewis, you will find many more examples. What makes this situation worse, is that in a toxic culture, the status quo tends to work in favour of those it supports, and against those who prefer change. But change is much harder, especially on a large behavioural scale, than simply ‘getting on, getting on’. So any prevailing culture favours both the status quo of inertia, coupled with favouring those who are favoured by it.

Culture Shift

by Kirsty Bashforth

The book takes you through the key stages of building and maintaining a corporate culture, and there are scores of case studies to provide

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