• Managing people

4 Levers for an Agile Culture

Margaret De Lattre on how to shift your organization’s culture to be both efficient and more agile and flexible

Wednesday 18 July 2018


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Through her research, Margaret De Lattre, Director of Henley Business School’s Advanced Management Practice program, has identified four key levers used by organizations that have successfully changed their culture to become more agile...

The phrase ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, widely attributed to business guru Peter Drucker, sums up the importance I attach to organizational culture, particularly in such volatile times. Simply put if your strategy and business context require you to be more agile and your culture doesn’t allow you to be, you won’t be.

Through our research at Henley we have identified four key levers activated by organizations that manage to change their culture and become more agile and flexible.

Very often, the organizations I deal with know they need to adapt, flex and innovate, but they never manage to shake off a corporate mindset that is typically focused entirely on predictable delivery, lowering risk and efficiency. While these are important for success, they are also exactly the characteristics that inhibit agility.

I am far from surprised at this enduring approach, especially at a time when Brexit, elections, political upheavals and ongoing austerity tend to instil a sense of caution.

This rate of change can strengthen the inertia within lots of organizations, and they retreat into their comfort zones as they try to control their uncertain world, but we must realise that things will always change, and the rate of change is probably only going to accelerate. So the organizations that can learn to both deliver reliably and be fully responsive to changing circumstances will quickly be at a competitive advantage.

Embrace the concept of multiple cultures

One of the most important changes any organization can make is to recognise that they can – and indeed should – have different cultures for different parts of the business.

There still seems to be some benefit in a common culture – often a set of common values – to bind an organization together, and as long as these values are aligned with the strategy of the business, it can really drive success.

But all too often, desired corporate values compete with each other. It is too difficult for most people to simultaneously fall in line behind a value that emphasises efficiency and also one that emphasises adaptation or agility. They pull you in different directions. But if both mindsets are important for business today, we have to work out how we can help our organizations be both, at the same time.


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In organizations that achieve this, different parts of the business seem to have different priorities for their values or culture as much as they do for their operating plans and targets. The finance department, for example, might prioritise a culture and targets based on detail, process and control, whereas the R&D team needs to operate in an environment where creativity, innovation and experimentation can flourish. In this way, the different parts of a business can collectively deliver both efficiency and agility.

The four levers that create a more agile organizational culture

In response to this need and building on our research at Henley I have identified four key levers that organizations need to activate:

  1. Symbols – what we see, hear and touch around us every day, such as training, communication and the working environment. Unconsciously, the environment in which we work impacts hugely on what we focus on, so creating a working environment that can be adapted for different people and purposes or by simply giving people space in which to meet and interact can make a real difference.
  2. Behaviours – understanding how successful people act, and how this can incorporate ‘living the values’. This would include recognition of success; not only good commercial performance, but also those role models who embrace and promote the organizational values. It also means people who achieve their operational and financial targets while not behaving in line with the desired culture should not be credited with high overall performance ratings.
  3. Reward and measurement – setting goals and targets that indicate whether you are making progress towards the culture you want. For example, this could be about defining specific metrics around not closing down seemingly unworkable innovations too quickly, but instead learning from them and finding ways to make them work.
  4. The business context – all the other things that help or hinder people to behave in certain ways. Often, the structures and processes that have been put in place – usually for good reasons – can get in the way of innovation and flexibility. Processes and the IT systems that enable them are often perceived to restrict progress rather than enabling agility. Holding tightly only onto essential processes, while being very open to amending those that really inhibit innovative new ideas is a starting point.’

I believe through using these levers it is possible to shift the culture of an organization so to be both efficient and more agile. The rewards, in terms of competitive advantage in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, can be enormous.

Set in the heart of the Thames Valley and conveniently located for London, Henley is one of the oldest and most respected business schools in Europe. Number 20 in the world for the combined ranking of open and custom programmes (FT 2019), it is part of an elite group of business schools to be triple-accredited for the quality and capability of faculty and output.

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