Simon Terry

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Lead Culture Change From the Outside-in

Leaders need an external perspective to change culture in organisations.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” – David Foster Wallace

In a recent twitter chat, the question was asked “Why do organisations decide to change their culture?”  At first I thought that was obvious, but on deeper reflection I realised the answer wasn’t always clear cut.

Culture, which is a pattern of predictable behaviours in a group of people, can be like water to fish. The patterns are so predictable we often can’t see them. Inside a culture, all the pressures are to conform.

Leaders who see the need for change in culture in an organisation do so because they are connected to and embrace external perspectives. Through their exposure to the world around the organisation, they can see:

  • externally pressures for a change such as the feedback of competitors, analysts, customers, community, regulators, etc
  • the organisation has to respond to new norms that are being adopted in society, the industry or other organisations
  • better practices are in use by other managers externally and could be leveraged
  • the attractive aspects of other cultures to the talented people leaving to other organisations or to the disgruntled people in your own organisation; or
  • the different mindsets an externally appointed CEO or group of managers might bring.

If your small group of executives want to build a movement for change in culture, you will need to start by connecting to an external perspective that can help them and others see the need for change. You can’t change if you can’t see the behaviour or the need for it to change.

A critical role for change leaders is to help foster an outside-in perspective in an organisation. Social collaboration is an important way to surface and share new views and create new accountability & energy for change.

Start bringing in and sharing customer views. They are usually easiest to incorporate into your company conversation and often quite disruptive. Then broaden your perspectives to competitors and other industries. Ultimately you will want to engage a diverse range of stakeholders to understand where your settled patterns of behaviour might need disruption.

Engaging critics and supporters will not tell you what you need to do. However, Each of these disruptions are an opportunity to reflect on how you want people in the organisation to behave consistently differently to build new and better patterns.

Because culture is like water to a fish, we are often unaware of its impacts unless an external perspective makes us stop and reflect. Leaders must help create the conversations with an external orientation to remind us continually that:

‘This is Water’


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