15 Apr, 2022

Desire paths and maintaining a healthy organisational culture

In urban planning, there is a concept known as desire paths – the informal worn-in paths where pedestrians choose to walk… even where a paved (“correct”) alternative lays just metres away. They pass through lawns, cut across corners and the more they are used, the more they become the obvious path for others to follow.

A desire path in Tottenham Green

Organisational culture is very similar. For all the strategy and planning in the world, culture is always ultimately driven by the people living and working in it. If cultural strategy is not rooted in reality and supported by the correct structures and processes, it will eventually be abandoned for an organic alternative – that may be at odds with organisational values and greater business goals.
Especially during a season of major organisational change or part of your merger and acquisition strategy,
the need to foster a healthy culture in line with your greater business goals is non-negotiable.

What is organisational culture and why is it important?

Organisational culture describes the actual values, processes, communication and shared energy of the people who make up your organisation. It’s your workplace’s personality – and some say, your greatest asset. An organisation with a strong culture has an engaged workforce that can easily identify the role their work plays in the greater success of your business.
It describes the actual situation, because just like desire paths… values and processes aren’t always automatically adopted because of a decree from the C-suite.

How does organisational culture get derailed and what is its risk?

Organisational culture is a veritable free for all when it’s not prioritised or clearly articulated. If values are never shown, they can never become shared. This is particularly amplified during a merger or other major organisational change process.

But the fastest way for an organisation’s culture to veer away from the ideal state is by poor modelling from leadership and management. A workplace that values integrity won’t set unrealistic sales targets. A workplace that values work-life balance won’t schedule meetings after 5:00pm, or expect responses to emails or calls after hours. A workplace that values innovation won’t micromanage.

Symptoms of an unhealthy workplace culture can also include:

  • high levels of turnover
  • employees habitually working late or skipping lunch breaks
  • employees not having opportunities to advance their career within the organisation
  • employees feeling the need to be always available – even while on leave
  • gossip, bullying and unhealthy competition or rivalry.

So what can you do to align your organisational culture and business strategy?

While organisational culture will formulate with or without intervention, it doesn’t mean that you should abandon the task of strategising and formalising entirely. But like any project, it’s essential to build steps for ongoing maintenance and evolution into your plan. Here are two key ways to make sure your healthy culture is sustained:

Prioritise ongoing workforce feedback

As SurveyMonkey says, “You can’t fix issues you don’t know about. It’s a good idea to begin by simply asking employees how engaged they feel about their work and workplace. A simple survey can provide you with essential information about how involved your employees currently feel at work.” Allow all staff the opportunity to have their voice heard – they likely already have solutions in mind.

To use desire paths as an example, in 1914 Ohio State University formalised its students’ shortcuts into an iconic geometric landscape of interconnected pathways turning a worn down field of desire paths into an integral part of the university’s fabric. Instead of ignoring – or trying to forbid – the natural flow, the university embraced it, adopting the students’ push for efficiency and simplicity. By building the intercrossing pathways, it also meant that more unsightly paths wouldn’t be forged, maintaining the polished appearance of the grounds.
Don’t fight the currents, but instead find a suitable way to support them in line with organisational goals.

Make the ideal culture very clear and keep people accountable

Once you’ve defined an ideal state for your organisational culture, don’t keep it secret! Share the formalities with all team members, and don’t be afraid to demonstrate how you’re living them.
It can be helpful to think of your organisational culture as your “internal brand”, and whether certain behaviours are on- or off-brand for what you want to achieve. You might even take this literally, and create formal guidelines that become part of your onboarding process. This also makes it easier to realign if an individual does begin making decisions that aren’t in line with organisational expectations. It’s important for team members across all levels to contribute to a healthy culture.
A clearly defined culture also helps you to “hire for cultural fit” in the right way. It’s an easy trap to fall into, hiring new staff who will get along with existing team members feels like maintaining culture. In reality, it’s a potentially dangerous way to perpetuate bias and create a homogenous workforce. A diverse range of personalities can share the same dedication to business values (good cultural fit) while maintaining their own unique personal values.

9Yards can help

Looking to develop a merger and acquisition strategy or manage major organisational change in a way that sustains a healthy and vibrant organisational culture?. Arrange a consultation with our team today