It’s the little things

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Organisational culture is an interesting thing.

When we look back, we tend to point to the big moments – the decisions, the close calls, the mergers, the mistakes – and talk about how they epitomise the culture.  Think Hewlett-Packard and its garage inventors.  Think the UK government and the Iraq dossier.

We remember the moments better because they carry weight and so we point to them as being significant in defining the culture.  They’re also easier to tell stories about.  Retro-fitting culture to these moments is also a neat trick our brains often play on us too.

And then when we’re looking for change in the current culture, there’s a focus on big moments – mergers, big announcements, new leadership.  And while they’re interesting and useful, they’re not where the culture is formed.  They might be signposts, but there are other areas that are more significant – the day-to-day decisions and choices that get made without acknowledgement.

Schein defined culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group… that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to [its] problems.” 

Working with one senior team recently, they were discussing examples of their corporate values – one of which was “respect”.  As they justified its inclusion, one director challenged the entire conversation – “but we don’t have respect in here.”  As you can imagine, it wasn’t a popular comment, but he continued: “I’ve been to two dozen meetings in the past week – and not one person has turned up on time to any of them.  That’s a lack of respect.”  At which point they all agreed – to them it was absolutely about lack of respect for the other people in the meeting.


It’s often what we’re getting at when we talk about leaders “walking the talk” – if you want to change the culture, start with the little things.  Act on the values/principles/mission at the smallest level – it’ll have a greater (cumulative) effect than the big showy decisions and events.