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How To Shift Your Culture to Ignite Your Strategy



Having the right culture to support the realization of your killer strategy is one of the most critical factors to making sure that you can deliver what you promised.


The strategy is WHAT you need to do. The culture is HOW you get things done - and it has an outsize impact on the effectiveness, or even success, of your strategy execution.


It's no secret that culture is the lifeblood of any organization. A misalignment between strategy and culture will make the implementation of the strategy feel more and more sluggish. It can also lead to a lack of engagement with people and reduced productivity.


And you need passionate, motivated, purpose-driven people to knock things out of the park. So culture shift can really be the linchpin for successful strategy execution.


But aligning culture with strategy isn't always a smooth ride. What works best is a design approach to culture.


In our most recent post we talked about how culture is a combination of experiences and feelings that shape their behaviours and attitudes towards work, and give employees a sense of meaning and belonging.


That means that culture is built over time, and it’s usually pretty engrained - which can make it hard to shift.


But shifting it is certainly possible.


When you adopt a design mindset, you build on deep empathy and understanding of your people and customers, you focus on collaboration and co-creation, and you prioritize experimenting, testing and learning.


In this part 2 of our miniseries on Culture, we will be focusing on the steps required to shift your culture to align it with - and help it enable - your new strategy.


STEP 1: Assess Implications of Your New Strategy

The first step is to determine what new mindsets and behaviours your strategy will require of your leaders and people.


When you design your strategy, there are conscious or unconscious assumptions at play in terms of the types of behaviours that will be needed to successfully implement it. And those behaviours are anchored in mindsets and beliefs.


Take for example an organization that declares in their strategy that they will become much more customer-focused. What does this really mean?


Well, it means that your people need to believe that the customer is the top priority and needs to be front and centre in everything they do.


And from a behaviour standpoint, that might look like always asking for and sharing customer feedback to make improvements (for customer facing roles).


Or it might mean making sure that each team member understands how their role impacts the customer, and that they prioritize their ‘job jar’ by what will have most direct impact on them (for non-customer facing roles).


So, the first step is to do the work to uncover - and make explicit - the mindsets and behaviours your strategy is calling for.

Pro Tip:

Take the newly formed strategy and engage several groups of employees to review it, and discuss what they believe are some key barriers or ‘missing pieces’ of the current culture to successfully execute the new strategy. By doing this right you will get some honest, unvarnished opinions about what’s not working - which will tell you what you need to amp up or downplay in your culture shift.


STEP 2: Assess Your Current Culture


Now that we understand the beliefs, mindsets and behaviours that are required to embody the newly minted strategy, it’s time to take an honest look at your organization's culture.


Working again with your people in a combination of interviews and group sessions, assess the characteristics of the culture.

  • How would they characterize the culture?

  • What mindsets and behaviours are really rewarded in the organization?

  • What do they see are the predominant behaviours that are supported?

Most often there are ‘unspoken’ behaviours that are subtly encouraged. In our experience, many times there is a big difference between the values that exist on lunch-room posters versus what employees experience and embody day-to-day. That is what we’re really after here.


Now pinpoint the areas of difference between the cultural elements your new strategy needs and your current culture.


Going back to our example of customer focus, maybe there is something in the current culture that encourages and rewards a ‘process-first’ focus in the organization - where people prioritize managing risk for the organization over how they can best meet customer needs.


These areas of difference are the culture gaps that need to be addressed.


And within that gap is where your aspirational culture lies.

Pro Tip: Make sure you spend time at the front-line and middle management level - what many people call ‘the mushy middle’ when it comes to managing change and delivering on strategy. This layer is often not listened to, but these leaders are most influential in the day-to-day mindsets, beliefs and behaviours of your people.


STEP 3: Define Your Aspirational Culture


Now that you have identified what aspects of your culture might need to be 'toned down' or 'amped up' to deliver on your new strategy, it’s time to engage people in developing a clear and robust aspirational culture.


When helping organizations define their aspirational culture, there are a few key sub-steps that have proven for us to accelerate the conversations that leaders and people must have on the culture they aspire to experience:


Mine for Great Stories All of us have had moments in our career working in teams where we came to life - ‘peak moments’ if you will - where WHAT we were working on and HOW we working set our hearts on fire. As with all stories, these usually reveal meaningful and emotional moments.


Chances are that the HOW (mindsets, beliefs, behaviours) is what made this such a memorable experience.


When you elicit those experiences from people across the organization, you’ll emerge with some very tangible themes: themes that will illuminate existing bright spots in the organization, or provide meaningful insights into what your organization should aspire to.


Create Bold Statements Building on the insights from stories, it’s time to gather a bigger group - maybe all of your senior leaders - and rally the team to generate future-oriented BOLD statements that describe the key dimensions of the future culture. This is an important moment for getting your leadership to feel where the energy is, get aligned, and get excited about the future.


In our customer-focus example, a bold statement might be: “Unhappy customers will be our greatest source of learning.” These culture statements are not only intended to be bold and aspirational, but also inspirational.


Make Your Values Real Anchors of Culture In most organizations, culture is rooted in a set of core values. These values are sometimes powerful and clear. But often they are vague, bland, run-of-the-mill statements.


But values can form important anchors by which people can conduct themselves day-to-day and make decisions. Together with stories and bold statements, your values should be the ‘compass’ that - together with your strategy - helps guide decisions in the organization.


Here are some questions to guide the evaluation:

  • Do the values reflect the aspirational culture? If not, what can we tweak and/or add that would incorporate the key themes and bold statements?

  • Do the values make clear the desired behaviours and experiences that we want to bring to life? If not, then the values may have to be re-articulated to state what it means (and what it looks like) to behave in line with this value.

While it’s not enough to just declare it, you need to be clear and explicit about your aspirational culture - the culture (including new values, mindsets and behaviours) that not only is going to help you deliver your strategy, but that is also going to engage their sense of purpose and create a sense of meaning and belonging for your people.

Pro Tip:

The values need to be memorable and ‘tight’, but they also need to be explained. The best way to do this is through articulating 1-3 example behaviours that bring them to life. When you combine these behaviours with the stories and experiences that we mentioned earlier (and encouraging this kind of storytelling), your culture message becomes very powerful, meaningful, tangible and ‘sticky’.


STEP 4: Create Your Culture Roadmap



One of the big problems we’ve seen with culture shifts is that it becomes a catch-all to solve ALL people and leadership issues in the organization.


But you have to really stay focused on what is going to shift the culture. And to do this, you need to build a roadmap.


This roadmap shouldn’t be a precise description of every initiative you need to take. It should help you to be crystal clear on the path and the priority levers that you need to pull to bring to life this aspirational culture - a healthy blend of some experiments and some targeted actions and initiatives you’ll need to mobilize and inspire people.


Every organization is different - but here are two critical components that we believe you should include in your roadmap.


‘Clean-Up in Aisle 6’

You probably have a full ecosystem of ‘artifacts’ that signal your culture to your people: values, leadership programs, people programs, policies, practices, processes and frameworks, competencies… the list goes on.


It can be overwhelming to choose what to tackle.


But if it’s overwhelming for you, imagine how overwhelming it is for your people to make sense of it all.


It’s now time to review this ecosystem and determine what must stay, change, and go.


Less is more. Tough decisions will be made in this step, but it’s critical to determine what is the absolute essential that is needed in the organization.


Above all you need to make the ‘markers’ of your culture clear and easy to understand.


Your people will seek clarity and support from the organization to help them embody the new values and behaviours, and nothing is more challenging than having too many signs pointing in different directions.


Engage People in Co-Creating Experiences

As we mentioned in Part 1, culture is a feeling we have that is defined by experiences. Now that you have defined the aspiration culture with your people, it’s time to let your people co-design and create these experiences.


In many instances, it starts with leaders and their people dialoguing about what this new aspirational culture means to them, how the values and behaviours translate in their day-to-day, and more importantly, how they are creating an environment of constant learning to live this new culture.


To fast-track this, harness the energy of your people - even when it is fledgling in the early days - by getting people to come up with ideas of how to bring it to life, and identifying the ‘moments that matter’ to focus on in the employee experience.


In Summary


A bold strategy needs the horsepower of a culture that supports delivering its promise.


The journey of aligning culture with strategy doesn't need to involve a drastic 180-degree culture change. Often, a smaller set of key adjustments in behaviour and mindsets can make a significant impact - things you need to amp up or tone down.


By following the steps we’ve outlined, leaders can shift their culture in a way that fully supports their strategic goals, paving the way for sustained organizational success.


So, take a moment to consider: What cultural adjustments does your strategy call for, and how can you start implementing them today?


Thanks for reading. See you again next week! (Feel free to subscribe and/or reach out to us.)



We hope you enjoyed this newsletter. Whenever you're ready, there are more ways we can help you:

  1. Run a Strategy Design with your leadership team to define your next innovative and winning strategy.

  2. Help you with your Future Culture Design and a roadmap to shift your culture and transform experiences with your people.



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