Say it like you mean it

Principles for effective organisational behaviours

David GunnMay 2020

Clients often come to us asking for help with codifying the cultural behaviours, or principles of their organisation. Normally this falls into two camps. A smaller organisation is growing rapidly, and are keen to codify what makes them special in a way that protects their culture and helps new hires to find their way. Or a larger, more established organisation wants to shift its relationship with the wider world and decides it must begin by changing the way it operates internally.

In the old days, organisational “values” often got a bad rap for good reason. These lists of adjectives built around words like “honesty” “integrity” and “human” are frequently generic, largely irrelevant and often laughably abstract – even infamous corporate crooks like Enron have "honesty" as one of their core values. Often cooked up in board-room debates or single departments, this kind of work does nothing other than making its creators feel good – and usually ends up gathering dust in forgotten induction handbooks.

That doesn’t mean one can’t try to foster certain behaviours, but values are inherently abstract ideas, and hard to pin down. We have a much greater interest in active behaviours – i.e. things that can be made manifest. In the last few years we’ve undertaken this work for a wide range of organisations who wanted to do different things. The folks at Franco Manca wanted to protect a distinctive ethos whilst growing at speed. Museum of London wanted to reinvent their organisation from the ground up. Ravensbourne University wanted to create the DNA for constant reinvention for their ambitious new Institute for Creativity and Technology.

Gleaned from this experience, here’s a checklist of four things to keep you on the right path as you develop new behaviours work for your organisation:

Participatory
Involve staff at all levels in the creation of the behaviours to ensure it reflects – and can shape – activity at all levels of the organisation.

Vernacular
Each organisation has its own unique communications style & lexicon. Write your behaviours in this language so it feels natural to your teams, gets remembered, and passed around in day-to-day conversations. Sometimes we've done this pretty obviously - like writing Tonkotsu’s behaviours in a blend of english and japanese, in other situations it's more about catching hold of particular words and phrases already live in an organisation like “put on a great show” and enshrining them in the work.

Directional
A good behaviour is one that is clear to people on the receiving end and provides clarity on what they should do in real-life situations. In the past we’ve helped organisations step away from using things like “fresh” (what the hell does that mean for) or “quirky”. Our preference - things like “contrast and connect… keep your feet on the street” - phrases with a bit of attitude that can be connected to the day to day life of the organisation.

Connected
One of the worst things that can happen to values or behaviours work is the assumption that once they are written, the job is done. Wrong – this is when the real work starts. The most successful organisations understand this intuitively and work hard to connect behaviours work to other aspects of the organisation (such as explicit links to employee recruitment and evaluation) or even create whole new rituals to help the behaviours slip into the bloodstream of daily life around the organisation.

Constructing these kinds of behaviour sets can be challenging and they can take many forms. You’ll know if you’ve done it right if the language connects with your team, and you find the words being used casually in conversation up and down the organisation. When this happens, you’re off to a good start. Don’t ever believe behaviours will reinvent an organisation on their own, but approached right they can be an invaluable tool in helping to reinforce the best aspects of organisational culture and positively influencing how you work internally and how you’re experienced out in the wider world.

David Gunn

David Gunn

Participation specialist. Major projects for Tate, World Health Organisation, Museum of London and Franco Manca. Co-founder of Something More Near.

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