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Culture, Change & Tales from the field

Published on Nov 22, 2015

Speaking at HR Advisor Conference, London, October 2016


Culture, Change & Tales from the Field

Julie Drybrough - fuchsia blue ltd
Photo by Ethnocentrics

It starts here:

1st HR role - Postal Services in Jersey, Channel Islands.

The business need to move from traditional postal servcies to a more modern, cost efficient, cost effective service

The need to attract talent on an island where financial services kept wage bills high

The need to be innovative with our costs – get stuff going on a shoestring

The need to bring in technologies which would support us internally

The need to build our reputation

I was a fairly rubbish HR person – my ability to enforce policies and procudures with rigour was not great. I like knowing rules so I can work out how to break or get round them – therefore was person most likely to land us in court.

My boss recognised my talents might lie in other poeple areas and asked me to head up the culture change agenda.
We were working with a UK Consultancy and over the next 4 years, I learned how to understand and work with the culture of an organisation, how to work round blocks and barriers, the importance of conversation and influcence.......
And 15 years on – that’s pretty much my job.
Photo by go.dolphin

What IS culture?

Not one thing – make up your own mind and work with a definition that works for you

My definition – a web – lots of strands of people and actions that build up to a networked, connected system

A web – look at Johnson & Scholes thinking – from the 1980’s but says: look at the stories, the rituals, the power structures – as a starting point for understanding and mapping culture it’s good enough to work with

Also – the web analogy was reinforce by work done by Margaret Wheatley – Who looks at organisational and systems behaviours.

Wheatley talks about culture as a web – and if you cut the part of a web the spider re-weaves it, making it stronger – her view is it is the connection in the web that matters – so for her, culture change is about strengthening the web –
In this analogy, culture is a dynamic and yet static thing – a core structure which can be altered, but fundamentally remains the same
Photo by Neal.

What's Culture got to do with HR?

Ah.. The big question

If you are in HR you are both contributing to and altered by the culture. You might set the agenda and the frameworks . Policies and values etc– the formal settings for “how we are being round here”

And there is an informal network that both validates and sometimes completely undermines your best intentions

What is permissable and valued can’t wholly be set by HR.

Oh – and you are unlikely to have a mono-culture. Pay attention to that – different site, different fuctions... All of that adds to the web and what works one place, may not work elsewhere.... I’ll talk more about this later

You can’t be “outside” the culture you work in – not for very long anyway. One of the reasons client s work with these Consultant types is, sometimes, the view from outside is clearer… or different,, that and there are times outsiders like me can say stuff that wouldn’t be tolerated internally…

Your culture affects who you recruit and retain, your benefits package and how you treat your staff.
It dictates how racist sexist, inclusive or exclusive folk are likely to be
It affects how you treat your customers or consumers and their experience of you.

Culture is hard to define, but it must be worked with – I’d like to talk a little about culture change, as I know it and see it
Photo by davidmulder61

The Myth of Culture Change

This is often how culture change is presented - a big picture, broken down into neat activities - a timeline for delivery…
Much of our organisational thinking is designed around separating ourselves from the change we seek.

We put "it" out there - on a gangtt chart, a plan, we split it into smaller project pieces with timescales and milestones which are our best-guess and we watch as the timescales slip and milestones move. We plan internal comms and engagement drives, trying to keep everyone involved and aligned....
Photo by eldeeem

Most peoples' reality...

This is how change actually happens in organisations – like a murmuration of starlings – lots of chatter, one moves, the whole thing moves, then moves back – ebb and flow, complicated, connected – reliant on relationships. (HT to Mayven Ltd for analogy)

Most people don't experience change as linear or measurable.

The reality of change in systems of living beings is far more like a murmuration of starlings - noisy, chattering, a core structure with a purpose - but the shape and speed vary. To an outsider, it looks like a magnificent, slightly confusing spectacle.
Inside the murmuration, there are some basic rules:
Avoid crowding your neighbour (Separation)
Line up with those close by (Alignment)
Steer toward the overall average movement of the bigger flock (cohesion)

Three basic rules - all of which rely on the relationships to the other birds, or the flock as a whole to get down to a safe roosting position.

No starling is separated from their part in the flock - they are active, communicating, sensing their way through.

The important stuff

So – how do you navigate culture, as an individual? As a HR function?
How do you hold in the midst of a murmuration?

In my view, there are three main things
Know your self
Know your context
Choose your conversations
Photo by srgpicker

1. Know yourself

Self knowledge, self awareness – what works for you, what doesn’t

What you are agreeable to & what you don’t like or understand affect the decisions you make and ultimately affect the culture you create around you.

Understand your "git self"

Sometimes, you are amazing – you are on it, you understand what you are doing and why, you are helpful and smart and kind.

Sometimes – you are totally not. Get used to that. Be OK with it. Work to be better.

The things that make you bat crap crazy and stubborn and closed?
The things that make you afraid or intimidated or doubtful?
Get to know these - every single person has them

Only by knowing your git self, can you work towards creating a culture where it rarely needs to come out – you are responsible for your own behaviour – get feedback, pay attention to what you are generating around you….

When IT annoy you, or the senior leader dismisses you – don’t just randomly flip out or curl up in a corner –try to learn. What can you ( individually or collectively) do to make it happen less often or never at all?
Photo by mtungate

Bring your best self

A good culture requires people to bring their best selves – the altruistic, noble, awesome shiny stuff

Bring your brilliance, your kindness, your generosity, your compassion.
If you can’t find them – go hunt them out – they are in there someplace.

2. Know your context

Context is everything – the whole murmuration adjusts to the weather conditions – if you want to understand how to influence the culture you operate in, be able to read the climate and conditions that are affecting it – political, social, economic etc – they are more important than most folk give them credit for
Photo by martinak15


  • Your culture
  • What you are trying to achieve
  • Who has actual power & status
Photo by H is for Home

Hold to the core

Understand the Culture and context
But hold to the core of what you are trying to achieve – if you want greater diversity, a more innovative leadership, growth, restructure, implement a new thing internally? – know why you are doing that, hold to it and work with as much openness and kindness as you can muster to deliver it.

It’s a paradox – the need to adapt and to be determined. Learning to run that continuum will serve you well, both in your current role and in other roles in the future.
Photo by Ross Mayfield

3. Choose your conversation

The murmuration is constantly chattering – culture is about relationships – choose the conversations you want to be in or need to be in.. And the ones you really don’t
Be careful with your precious time. Use it wisely in your culture!

You may hear a lot about disruptive, new this, future of work, trend, holocracy, stuff – a lot of that stuff is bollocks – hold to the basic stuff you know, listen well and apply what you can …

Beware of simple, shiny solutions – anyone who claims to have “the answer” – any expert who comes along ( inlcuding me!) who tells you how it “should be” – those conversations are designed to derail you – to make you wistful for something else – Yes. Google have amazing offices and food available 24 hours – but this is to encourage people to stay and work… not wholly because Google are super-nice
And they can talk a good game about their internal culture, and they work their staff hard – sometimes overly so, and diversity is an issue… and if you work in a Local Authority with naff all budget and increased pressure on services, a nice buffet and a office slide are just not what’s important.

So be ware of your context and your conversations and where to put your energy.
Photo by garryknight


I have to end on Joy.

Working in Doha in 2015. Gnarly change culture conversations - a lot of resistance and the culture was starting to impact on my ability to bring my best self - high risk of git self running.

Going out at the weekend, into the searing heat of the desert and at dusk, finding camels being brought in to race... and the joy in mustering camels.. the sheer energy and daftness of camels - their big fuzzy faces and the young kids shouting "hey lady, look mat y beautiful camel"

The story of joy of camels in the desert..

I carried that joy into the next workshop and the five after that and that was the week we got the biggest shift in the conversations....

Go find your joy. Infect your culture with it. Banish your git self and work to create a culture of wonder and cohesiveness around you.

It’s just better that way

Contact: Julie Drybrough