It’s ok to think out loud about organisational culture

Written by Giles Turnbull, Creative Writer at Government Digital Service

It’s been a few weeks since I sat down one day and typed a list of things I thought were ok to do where I work. A few weeks since I shared it with colleagues who suggested some changes and additions (particularly Zara Farrar, Mark Boxall, Graham Higgins and Janet Hughes). And a couple of weeks since Sonia Turcotte turned the list into a poster, which went up in the GDS office, and then went bananas on Twitter.

In the days after posting that tweet, loads of people said lots of very positive and encouraging things. Quite a few have printed out a copy, or made one of their own, and stuck it up on their office wall too. Seeing their comments via Twitter (and a few by email), I learned a few things:

  • people really like that it’s ok to sing (I thought that was just me)
  • lots of people worry about what newcomers think of their organisations, but don’t know how to deal with that concern
  • simply noticing that your workplace has unwritten rules, and writing a few of them down, can make everyone who works there (not just the newbies) think about the culture

In my experience, the best cultures are the ones where senior management take the time to notice what’s going on around them, and to lead by example. If everyone sees the management doing things, they know they can do those things too.

And another top tip, I think, is clarity. Being a leader means being explicit about your expectations, spelling things out so that there’s no ambiguity. People often forget that, and just assume that everyone thinks the same way they do. Not so. The “It’s ok” list has been lurking in my head for years, but it was daft of me to assume that everyone else thought the same way. Writing it down, sharing it out, was the best way to be clear about it, and the best way to find out whether or not everyone else agreed. Turned out most people did.

Not top down, but bottom up

Corporate culture is hard to get right, because it’s so hard to pin down.

As my boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain said at the Digital Leaders ND16 conference this week, what’s important in an organisation like ours isn’t devising a culture from above, and imposing it on the team. What’s important is creating the right conditions, the right working environment, where culture emerges and grows all by itself.

That’s what happened with the “It’s ok” poster. I wrote the list in the first place because our team was growing rapidly, and I realised that the unwritten rules of working at GDS are just as useful to know as the written ones.

The list I wrote wasn’t exhaustive, and I said so at the time. The more people see it and adapt it, the better a tool it becomes for everyone. Not all office cultures are the same, so I expect the definition of ok to change from place to place, and to change over time.

The point is: simply writing something that says what’s ok in your organisation can be the catalyst for positive change. It’s not so much about what’s on the list, but the fact that you have a list at all.

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