A million small things

“It isn’t the [add subject in question], it’s the culture” 

I’ve read this a few times over the past couple of weeks and each time become increasingly more irked. The first time was on the blog of my friend and co-collaborator Rob Jones in a rather lame and cack handed defence of appraisals. Another time was from the enigma that is @fizzywizzy in relation to Lloyd’s bank introduction of quotas for female managers.

Of course, I get the point both are trying to make. But it also reminds me of one of the biggest weaknesses of the profession. The inability to see both the big and the small, to navigate the interconnected nature of everything that we do around people, to wrestle with the simple complexity that is the world of work.

If a culture isn’t made up of the interventions that an organisation has, what is it?

Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Culture doesn’t make itself. Culture isn’t a higher being. Culture is a result of the million small things that we do at work every day. From a Human Resource perspective, culture is defined by every touch point that we offer to anyone in our organisation. The relationship between culture and intervention is multi faceted and multi directional.

The suggestion that somehow “culture” sits outside of the practical and the pragmatic is both dangerous and lazy. Dangerous because it allows us to excuse failure. Lazy because it suggests lack of influence.

If you want to develop your organisational culture, if you want to build and grow your organisation, start with the small. You can make a million small things happen much quicker than you think. And each of those, if correctly designed, thought through and implemented will go much further to developing your culture than big strategic round tables or away days.

The big is made of the small, the small influences the big. Culture is everything that we do.

It isn’t the culture that’s the problem, it’s everything we do.


  1. Sukh Pabial · February 10, 2014

    And by extension its everything we condone, everything that goes unchallenged, everything left unsaid, everything that is put up with and everything we believe could be better but do nothing about.

    • Neil · February 23, 2014

      Absolutely. Inaction is action.

  2. Mat Davies · February 10, 2014

    Nice post, ticking lots of my proverbial boxes. I think the idea that culture exists outside of action is a largely HR point of view, mainly as a lazy excuse as to why all those HR interventions don’t have their desired effect. At least, they don’t have the effect desired by the HR practitioner. How inconsiderate.

    The lesson here- well, a lesson, anyway- could be this- organisations are complex, cultures are complex which surely means that HR responses are through necessity going to be nuanced and complex. Or is this stating the bleeding obvious?

    • Neil · February 23, 2014

      And what will work for me in my organisation, will not work for you in your organisation. That’s the thing.

  3. Steve Hearsum (@stevehearsum) · February 26, 2014

    At the risk of saying something that adds naff all value: I agree. The accumulation of tiny differences is what makes for culture. Richard Seel talks about the frequency and quality of interactions in complex human systems as being core to the quality of connection between individuals. I also like that as a guide or indicator to how culture emerges, is perpetuated and indicative of the speed at which it changes. Namely, not that fast, and not in any sense of the word, planned or plannable.

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