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Kirsty Bashforth, CEO, Quayfive Ltd.

17th September 2019

Culture Shift – Using Business Psychology to underpin Strategy Delivery

Kirsty Bashforth wanted to share two main messages from her recently published book.

  1. The importance of a business psychology strategy. The best strategy on paper will be underdelivered or even undermined without a strategy to focus on the organisational culture as well – and that means buy in of individuals.
  2. Treating culture as an equal partner with strategy is therefore vital and traditional project management approaches don’t work – it needs a behavioural economics mindset.

And we still haven’t reached the tipping point where it’s the norm for organisations to do this, and do it consistently.

She came to write the book after a 24 year career at BP of commercial leadership where she experienced the fundamental importance of employee engagement and productivity in overall performance.  The background was a consolidation in the oil industry from 1999 when Amoco, Castrol, Arco and others became part of the BP group.   Sent to the Amoco HQ in Chicago in a Finance role, then to Castrol in Denmark to lead Strategy and then back to the US once Arco had arrived to be Chief of Staff in BP America, she saw at first-hand how informal cultures and ways of working from different organisations can be strong and deeply rooted, and how these impact on identity and engagement, understanding how to navigate the organisation and day to day decision making. What seems similar on the surface is not necessarily so when you dig down into the informal – the assumptions, perceptions, communities and long-held habits.  They all impact how strategy is delivered.

Fast forward many years to 2010 and a full blown corporate crisis at BP in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Looking for solutions which were meaningful and actually worked, the new CEO met with Kirsty to discuss a paper she had written to him on culture and its criticality for focusing on on stability and productivity in operations. She spent the next 5 years leading a successful programme of change to redefine and further embed BP’s culture as part of its long term recovery.

She then left to set up her own business advising organisations on culture and wrote the book to help to promote her work.  The book is designed to be inspiration: rather than theory it intends to provide practical guidance and how to ask the right questions.

The book aims to convey three main messages:

  1. Culture and strategy should be equal partners – an annual culture review, a re-look every 3-5 years, a core part of the ongoing management rhythm, no culture as an add on or one-off project
  2. To deliver you strategy, your culture must be aligned to it. It’s no use having a culture of disruption if your strategy requires stable operational excellence.
  3. Culture shift will not just happen and neither is it a machine: we need to find a way of enabling it. You can’t run an organisation through Gantt charts.  Running a business is not an engineering problem to be solved.  People are all different; our outlook is different, from our sense of community, to our consideration of what works and what doesn’t, and our personal backgrounds and ambitions.  In any change situation one third are content to get on with it, a third are against, and the remaining third in the middle can be appropriately incentivised to cooperate.   It is insufficient to be told to “just get on with it”.


Kirsty shared thoughts on why it is difficult to get going on culture work: whether it’s leaders struggling to turn the mirror on themselves to recognise the shadow they create, or a discomfort to deploy EQ and focus on what makes others tick . It’s often only a disruption that kicks the focus into action, whether one that is forced upon leadership or a planned change that ignites an exploration for new ways of approaching problems.

When culture is addressed, mistakes are often made in the initial stages of the work.  It is all too tempting to think that words or a “Slogan” can substitute for shift. Not only does it run deeper than that, it may not be the words that are wrong, but the reality of today, or a misalignment with strategy. It takes some time to be clear what actually needs to be addressed.

And sometimes it’s where the work is led from and by whom that can hinder progress.  .  “Fools rush in” and automatically assume the work for cultural transformation is given to HR or project management. This misses the key point which is that everyone needs to share the risk and crucially own it.  And in order to do this it needs to be owned by CEO (just like strategy) as a starting point.

Resourcing can be an issue: leading this work is like air traffic control: setting and implementing the parameters by which everyone is flying their planes – not flying all the planes yourself. Throwing bodies at the central team doesn’t shift people’s behaviours, it simply means more bodies measuring what is going on. As the famous saying goes: “The pig doesn’t get fat just because you weigh it every day”.

The person being the air traffic controller should be senior enough to gain traction with the top leadership, and potentially from the line, to have credibility with those who lead operational units and where the rubber really hits the road.

Ultimately, everyone is part and parcel of changing mindset.  Culture change is about lighting all fires in an aligned way and to do this it is important to establish what motivates people in the framework of the organisation, and then on the basis of this information define the culture most suited to the organisation.

It should involve the whole organisation and each and every individual should share ownership and respond according to individual remit.   Six areas should be prioritised – and they focus on shifting the system, not simply persuading on the required outcome:

  1. A simple, clear, unchanging, message about the culture that is required and expected – on repeat.
  2. Leaders need to “make an effort” and allocate time to bringing people on board to support the culture change initiative. They need to encourage their employees to behave as “responsible disrupters”. They themselves need to put the time in and not offer themselves up as perfect sepcimens of the culture required, but a work in progress like everyone else.
  3. Culture shift needs to reflect the environment in which they operate – this means deliberately weaving the culture assumptions into processes by which peope operate and are incentivised – recruitment, performance management, development, recognition and so on.
  4. There should be symbolism in communication. Every symbol has a reference to and is a component of the overall culture.
  5. Invite everyone into the process – this doesn’t mean that everyone has to participate, and they won’t, but make it accessible and ask people to volunteer to take part in an small or big way. It is, after all, the sum total of everyone’s habits, perceptions, behaviours, decisions, actions that make up the culture.
  6. Track whether the culture is actively a part of decision making, or simply a retrospective fit that looks aligned.

Knowing how things are going is something of a craft – it’s not precision measumrent, nor is it purely hearsay. There should be an ongoing monitoring process to identify and record progress, but make it simple and a mix of quantitative and qualitative data. Look out for proxies and signals that help you target where to dig deeper.   But don’t measure only after 3 months and then decide you’re done: in practice it can take up to three business cycles of a process to effect deep and habit-forming change (such as 3 yearly cycles of performance management).

So, what sort of mindset does either the person leading the overall work (the air traffic controller) or a line manager need to deliver change?  A useful starting point is the six “P”s.

*           Passion. Be passionate about your work and embracing change. This is challenging work which many are still sceptical about. It’ll take a lot of energy.

*           Patience.  There needs proper focus to shift habits.  Quick wins are great starting points but they are not lasting changes. Hold the long view.

*           Perception.  Observe what is working and what isn’t – keep that EQ at high levels

*           Pragmatism.   Don’t stick dogmatically to what isn’t working.  Be prepared to be flexible along the way. Go where the energy is and do more of that.

*           Pedantry. Don’t allow sloppiness to creep into the expectations such that everyone is interpreting it for themselves. It will morph into something completely unrecognisable over time. This is about alignment.

*           Pig-headedness  – it’s about seeing it through, with many people who think it’s not possible or not important. There will be nay-sayers and those even who want to underpine it.  It takes determination to do this properly.

The most “dangerous” time is when there is a perception that the process has been completed.  “Aren’t we done yet?”, contemplates the top leadership. And even “we have a brilliant culture, it’s all good”. These are the moments complacency can creep in and that’s when things start to slip back. It is at this point that one has to distinguish between a new purpose driven rhythm and old habits. Keep alert, and keep tracking the culture – as you would the strategy. The work is never done; it may not be a big reboot required, but there will always be ongoing maintenance as individuals and contexts continuously shift.

To read more about Kirsty’s work, you can receive a 30% discount on her new book Culture Shift, when you use the voucher code Culture2019 at checkout on the Bloomsbury website:


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