The coronavirus pandemic is testing us all in ways we could never have predicted when we ticked over into this new decade just a few short (long) months ago. It’s easy to think we should be focusing solely on safety and business continuity in these conditions, and yes, these things are crucial. But even in times of crisis, culture isn’t just a nice to have. In fact, the importance of culture arguably becomes even more pronounced during these times. Now is not the time to banish culture to the background.

Playing strategic defence and offense simultaneously

Organisations are necessarily having to rapidly shift their strategies in response to the sudden and unprecedented corona-led disruption to the market. The shift can’t, however, all happen in one direction. Of course businesses are implementing defensive strategies to ensure business continuity but offensive measures are essential for paving the way to recovery. 

There’s nothing easy about executing a bi-focal strategy and the only way to do so in a short time is to ensure you’re embedding the right culture at the same time. Culture is what enables organisations to translate their strategy into outcomes, but those outcomes can span the full spectrum from success to failure.

Rally around purpose

In this environment, new habits are forming quickly. You only need to look at the number of people baking bread, whipping up a dalgona coffee or embracing customised Zoom backgrounds. The same goes for organisations, with new habits creating the opportunity to strengthen or shift your culture amid the disruption in a way that will separate the winners from the losers.

Daniel Goleman has emphasised the importance of purpose in not only riding out the pandemic but in positioning organisations to thrive post-corona. Not only is purpose critical for individual wellbeing in these difficult conditions, but it also provides a unifying direction that will guide the organisation, its leaders and team members.

The two critical anchors of culture  – organisation (protocols, processes and systems) and people (behaviours, motives and values, how they build and manage relationships) – must be aligned to the organisation’s purpose to create a shared understanding among a disparate workforce.

Video: Sharad Vishvanath talks to Korn Ferry’s president for Asia Pacific, Mike Distefano, about the role of culture in times of crisis.

Three ways to shift your culture

Taking action to shift culture requires an intimate understanding of your organisation’s individual culture, as well as what you need to shift immediately versus what should be prioritised for the medium term. Here are three ways to kickstart the shift:

  1. Know your weak points: Smart people know their strengths, but also recognise their weaknesses. Organisations are the same. Consider gaps in your culture and how they impact the defensive and offensive aspects of your strategy. What are you going to do to close those gaps? How will you reach a new level of interaction with your customers, disrupt your supply chain or optimise your manufacturing plant?
  2. Build capabilities: You can’t wave a magic wand and expect people to behave differently, but shifting culture inevitably requires a shift in behaviour. In our experience, you can’t do everything. Instead, prioritise those behaviours that will have the biggest impact. Then, cascade capabilities from the top, starting with leaders. The c-suite needs to show the rest of the organisation that they recognise the gap and can articulate it without any defensiveness.
  3. Set up centres of excellence to manage the ‘new normal’: New and robust guide rails need to be put in place to cement fundamental changes into the culture. These measures may be focused on growth (offense) or cost (defence), but in either case they need to provide the framework for the new behaviours in a way that reinforces the organisation’s purpose and culture. 

Times of crisis can be a catalyst for cultural change. To embrace the opportunity, start with our new white paper: Keeping your people engaged and productive in time of crisis.

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