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Helping Clients Do Culture: Thoughts from Aga Bajer

Aga Bajer, a leading culture change practitioner and management consultant, shared her thoughts with me on why culture is so critical to organisations, and why it’s so important to help clients do culture in the right way. Her insight was brilliant and outlined the journey she helps clients take when steering them towards the right way of finding and doing culture within their organisations, and what her core philosophy is behind her work practices. 

Human experiences and how they help us

I think that all the experiences that we have as human beings in life eventually come in handy. Whatever jobs we do, even my teaching job, so many decades ago, helped me to build my commercial and operational experience as well. Even other experiences, ones we might not link to work, like dancing tango, can help to do this job. 

With tango, you need to learn to read the other person and really be present in the moment because it’s a dance and it’s not choreographed. The only source of information that you have really is the touchpoint around your solar plexus with a dancing partner. And this is where you get the signals, what you are going to do, and how you are going to co-create that dance. 

This is an approach that I often take with my clients as well. I see this work as co-creating a dance; I certainly don’t see myself as an expert who comes in with all the answers. I see myself as someone who has had certain experiences in their life – operational experience, commercial experience, leadership experience of managing teams. But what I’m most interested in is to really understand what is going on and how we can co-create something that is going to amplify the impact and help these companies, and their people, to have a sense of accomplishment and success. 

The importance of culture for organisations 

Culture is the most powerful source that drives everything in an organisation. But because it’s mostly invisible, we tend to underestimate it. What helps to anchor it is if we define culture first. Of course, there are many different definitions of what culture really is, but the one that I’ve developed for the purposes of my work is that culture is an implicit set of expectations. 

Implicit is just a fancy word to say that these expectations are not expressed openly. These are the unwritten and unsaid expectations around how people are supposed to think, how they are supposed to feel, and how they are supposed to behave, in order to fit in a team or a group or a company. 

When you join a new company or team, very quickly you realise that people have a certain way of doing things, and they will expect you to emulate that, and start behaving the way they do and adopting the practices they have adopted. But if those practices are not productive, or those expectations are not helping either this group or this individual to be successful, it is going to be the biggest stumbling block towards the success of an individual, but also of the whole team or of the whole company. 

I can’t really see anything that would be more important than culture. But unfortunately, it’s very hard to pin it down, and it’s very hard to see. Very often you’ll see companies focusing on strategy, commercial planning, financial planning, product development, R&D –  all of these things with outputs that are easy to measure. And very often, unfortunately, they neglect culture. 

Peter Drucker famously said ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ I think as OD practitioners or culture practitioners, it’s our task to figure out ways to stop creating or feeding this false dilemma of ‘is it culture or is it strategy’. Ideally, the two should be eating breakfast together. They shouldn’t be cannibalising one another but instead aligned. 

Clearly, you cannot have a strategy that will be implemented effectively if your culture is not supporting it. Similarly, it doesn’t really make sense to have a culture, if it doesn’t help you to implement your strategy. You have to find that culture-strategy fit, almost like two pieces of a puzzle, and they need to inform one another. 

We help our clients to do culture the right way. I have a very strong belief in this, and I’m absolutely confident having seen the outcomes from our clients. If you do it the right way, if you really show up with curiosity about what’s important, what these people stand for, and what the narrative behind the business says, it all starts to resonate at such a level that it transforms the company. We call it knowing and discovery, but actually, just by the processes, we can see that it’s already changing the organisation. 

When our ancestors were still living in caves, millennia ago, we had a process that we have stopped using these days, which is one of making sense and meaning out of our daily experiences. For example, people would sit around the campfire and they would talk about this lion by the river, the strange lightning that hit the tree in front of the cave, the neighbouring tribe, and the rituals that they have created and what they mean. This kind of discussion helped them to survive and thrive in a very uncertain environment. In modern organisations, we have veered away from what makes us human – which is having experiences, and making sense of those experiences. I find that we put a huge emphasis on experiences, in the business context, and very little emphasis on making sense of all of it. 

I think of my job as meaning-making – I’m someone who helps my clients to make meaning. I see my job also as lighting these campfires for our clients so they can have these really important conversations, because when these conversations happen, this is how an organisation gets transformed, and where it taps into an incredible source of power.

The process of helping clients make keystone behaviour changes

How we would help our clients normally in the second stage of work we do is to identify where their strengths are at the moment, what behaviours they want to see in the organisation and where are the biggest gaps. We then try to identify what I call keystone behavioural changes. This is basically one change that paves the way for many other changes. You have to find the starting domino piece, and when that falls it creates the effect of everything slotting into place.  It’s a process that we use to help them identify behavioural change and then we look at three levers that you have to cultivate an environment that enables the right culture to emerge. 

You cannot force culture, you cannot mandate it, culture is not systems, culture is not process, however, when you create the right environment, you maximise the chances of the right culture and the right behaviours to emerge. 

We use the three levers as principles to create this. One lever is self-awareness and self-reflection – that is the task of leadership, but also leadership in the sense of each individual reflecting on their contributions and what they are doing to challenge themselves. Then we have coaching and conversations, which is understanding what’s happening between me and my colleagues and how we can keep each other accountable. 

When you think about culture, a useful image is thinking of a school of fish. We know that there is no boss fish yelling to the other fish ‘swim left, swim right!’ It’s an emergent phenomenon – they have found a way to create this movement that is perfectly aligned, and the way they do it is they have very simple rules. And the rules are to be close to the fish that is next to you, when you see food move towards it, and when you see danger, swim away. You need the same thing if you want to scale culture, you need to create those simple rules and an environment where you can implement it. 

We help people to have the right conversations, to be able to observe those simple rules. We help clients to design processes, policies, and structures that will enable their culture to express itself. For example, say one of your core values is innovation, or something that requires autonomy for it to work well but if your structure is extremely hierarchical and the chain of command is very rigid and things are not going to happen the way you want to see them – this is where we help clients redesign their structure so that they can see the desired behaviours. We take it one step at a time, identifying what is going to be the keystone change, and then tinkering with the various systems to help this behaviour emerge naturally and organically.

Discover more of Aga Bajer’s work on her website

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