Philip Houghton: Culture development and the top ten foundational practices

As the pace of business change accelerates and strategic differentiation becomes increasingly short-lived, it is arguable that effective culture development itself becomes strategy – enabling organisations to adapt, innovate and grow in an era of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

To successfully evolve or transform their culture to meet 21st Century market and competitive challenges, all organisations need to begin their culture development journey by putting in place the top ten foundational practices:

1. A CEO who ‘makes culture critical’

– placing it alongside the organisation’s strategic agenda as the key enabler of business performance, and who helps people create an emotional connection to the future

2. A powerful business rationale and narrative for culture development

– holding ‘vision’ up against the ‘consequences’ of not changing to create engagement, ownership and a tangible sense of urgency

3. A clear picture of the target culture

– in the shape of values, behaviours and clarity of the ‘gap’ that exists between the target and the established culture

4. A top team (and wider senior management group) that lead and model the wanted culture

– speaking with one voice and bringing it to life through everyday stories and conversations

5. A tangible plan of action

– with a defined end-state, milestones and success measures. It is hard enough to motivate people through change without the addition of ‘woolly’ definitions, vague time-lines, unclear accountabilities and inadequate resources

6. Signature actions and communications from the top

– that demonstrate ‘things are really changing’ in line with (rather than in contradiction to) the target culture. For example, who gets hired, fired, promoted and who gets a bonus, all signal massive cultural norms and expectations

7. An engagement and development strategy

– to include processes, learning and conversations that directly engage and include¹ people in the culture-building process (e.g. co-creation sessions, thematic workshops, strategy days, town-halls, team meetings and corporate communications), and which effectively ‘up-skill’ people to adapt and shift mind-sets and capabilities in a changing world

8. Direct challenge of the naysayers and critics

– who seek to undermine the leadership and dissipate the change effort (and their removal should they fail to ‘get on-board’)

9. Continuous alignment of talent to the target culture

– creating greater accountability for ‘behaviours’ alongside ‘performance’ through systems thinking² in relation to business processes, structures, rewards, policies, performance reviews, coaching and feedback, etc

10. Targeting of ‘key populations’ that need deeper levels of support and development in ‘shaping the culture’

– front-line employees and business unit leaders³ can have a disproportionate impact on the customer experience and commercial performance for example so avoid a one size fits all approach


1. Naomi I Eisenberger, The Neural Bases of Social Pain; demonstrates how social exclusion leads to brain signals that reflect physical pain in neural imaging

2. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory, Society of General Systems Research, formed in 1954

3. Warren Parry, ‘Big Change, Best Path’, (published by Kogan Page)