by Ian Saunders, Antony Aitken, Ray Charlton and David Flatman

Context and culture – the environment

Key point

Consider this: will the environment help or hinder the change?

Whatever change you have in mind, it is essential to think about the environment within which that change will take place.

You also need to monitor this as your change progresses, because the environment may change. Indeed, your change programme might well be changing the environment itself.

So regardless of the stage you are at with your change, it is worth collecting information about three related issues:

  1. The organisational context in which the change is happening
  2. How the proposed change will impact on other aspects of your organisation
  3. What sort of organisation you are and your experience with change.

Take time: slow down at this stage and consider the questions in each step carefully, even if you think you have considered them before for other reasons. Understanding your organisation is key to delivering change successfully.

1. Understanding the context

Change needs to be seen within its broader context and considered in the round rather than just its narrow confines. A useful starting point is to understand your organisation as a system.

W Edwards Deming, who among other things played a major part in providing the theory behind Japan’s post-war industrial success, taught that an organisation should not be managed as a functional hierarchy; instead, it should instead be managed as a system. This means understanding how work and its output flows from and to the customers (who might well be internal). This principle has been used to create a powerful tool for understanding your organisation as a basis for change.

The tool builds a map or model of the system, the purpose of which is to understand how the organisation works as a system; that is, to understand the inter-connectedness between all the elements that make up the organisation. It helps us to see how all our actions and decisions relate to the main purpose of the organisation – meeting customers’ needs.

In broad terms, it helps to focus on three questions:

  1. How well do we serve our customers? (And how do we know?)
  2. How well do our processes work? (And how do we know?)
  3. What system conditions encourage or discourage improvement? (And how do we know?)

Go through the Steps to build a systems picture of your organisation.

2. The impact of change

Having gained a grasp of the organisational context, the next thing to establish is how this change fits into the overall picture.

The Performance Driver Framework diagram, below, may help you to understand your organisation and its change needs better.

The framework consists of four main sections:

  • Direction – Purpose, Strategy and Plans
  • People – in terms of Capability, Alignment and Commitment
  • Enablers – Business Processes, Structures and Systems
  • Leadership – the roles of leading and managing that integrate all the elements.

This diagram is a schematic representation of the
Transition Partnerships’ Performance Driver Framework

The key question is this: which element or elements of the Performance Driver Framework does this change affect most?

  • You need to know this because any change to one element will have a knock-on effect to other parts of your organisation. For example:
  • If your change affects the capability of your people, what impact will this have on your ability to deliver your strategy?
  • If the change is to systems or processes, what impact will this have on the alignment or commitment of your people?
  • Above all else, what impact will this have for, or on leadership?

Get used to working with the Performance Driver Dramework; it will help you to get a better understanding of the impact of change and of the knock-on effects within your organisation as a system.

3. Organisational culture

If change is in the air – and even when is it not – it’s worth asking yourself whether the normal environment – the culture or ‘the way we do things around here’ – is likely to help you or likely to get in the way.

Is change seen as planned and controlled, or as a more flexible, adaptive, responsive process?


Be careful – culture can be particular to a part of the organisation, so do not make assumptions about one area from your knowledge of another!

Organisational culture has been defined as the sum of the individual mental models used by the whole organisation! So it’s clearly not an easy thing to change overnight. The cultural assumptions are often deeply influenced by beliefs held by founders and leaders, and these may carry on for years after the original founders have ceased to run the company. (Examples of cultures created by particular leaders are seen in Watson at IBM, Sloan at GM and Welch at GE.)

Purpose, vision, values and culture can be described as the core of an organisation, from which the energy for innovation and survival comes. So culture is a key component which needs to be taken into account during change.

How do you assess what the culture might be?

  1. Observe the visible evidence – such as dress codes, the way people talk to the boss, behaviours in meetings, and conversations at the water fountain.
  2. Record the espoused values and the links to behaviours. Do you have a set of values up on the wall, the espoused values, and are these used or ignored?
  3. Test the shared underlying assumptions, by discussing conflicts and inconsistencies between 1 and 2 above.

Go through the questions in Test your culture. You could use this as it stands or change and expand it for your own use. The answers will give you some clues as to how your organisation might react to change. These reactions will influence...

  • How you plan the change
  • How you prepare yourself and those around you
  • How you engage people to gain their uninhibited support.

Command and control versus systems thinking

After you have answered the questions in Test your culture, consider this: the more your answers lie in the left-hand columns of both tables, the more likely it is that you will sidentify with a command-and-control style of culture rather than a systems style.

Key point

Taking a systems view facilitates change, makes engaging people easier and enables a more open and innovative climate in which change takes root more naturally.

If you are in a command-and-control style of organisation, you will be less familiar with the process of engaging people and will therefore need to make a conscious and concerted effort to do so. See the page on Encouraging engagement (you could also look at the Alchemy topic on Culture).