Alastair Mitchell-Baker


Two metaphors around elephants and icebergs played out as we explored the often nebulous but still critical topic of culture – as confirmed by a poll of the participants!

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Iceberg: the visible work of strategy development and the hidden impact of culture

Nigel Terrington, Strategy Programme Director, NAO, outlined the background and drivers behind NAO’s strategy review in 2019 following the appointment of a new Comptroller and Auditor General. He explained how they approached the review with a classic strategic review process guided by 6 key principles. We might think of this as the work to be done above the waterline of the iceberg.

However, the NAO leadership also recognised there was ‘below the waterline’ work. They recognised from lessons of prior organisational change, the importance of culture. They understood their existing cultural tendencies, and sub-cultures, would impact their ability to craft and implement strategy. This echoed the insights from the Tricord organisational model shared by Alastair Mitchell-Baker which highlights how the organisational domains of identity, strategy, systems and culture impact each other.

Driven by NAO’s principle of being participatory and inclusive, Nigel explained that they wanted to understand how it really felt for people to work at the NAO. They wanted a shared view on what their culture was; how it helped and hindered. He outlined the iterative process used to do this, guided by a framework and structure from Tricordant.

The Culture Elephant: where you are, determines what you see

Alastair outlined Tricordant’s framing of culture based on the elephant and iceberg! He reflected on the ‘six blind men and the elephant,’ a famous Indian parable captured by John Godfrey Saxe’s poem. Each blind man feels something different depending where they are: a tree trunk, a wall, a snake? It is only together they get a sense of the whole: an elephant!

We advocate a mixed methods approach which elicits diverse perspectives and views across the whole organisation as essential to begin the understand the ‘culture elephant. Culture, like an elephant, has a long memory, usually moves slowly but can crush you if you don’t treat it well!

To go deeper in exploring culture, however, we need to go back to thinking about icebergs! Using Ed Schein’s model, we guided the NAO leadership to explore at the 3 levels of ‘what we do’, ‘what we say’ and the tacit hidden ‘what we believe’ around culture.

After initial Executive Team and Senior Leaders workshops, the NAO leadership and Nigel’s Strategy team led a series of deep exploratory conversations across the organisation which helped draw out a shared view of their culture. This process naturally was facilitated by their existing organisational culture strengths around intellectual curiosity and challenge. Building on this collective dialogue, the NAO team identified how they needed to develop their values, behaviours and supporting processes to develop their culture in support of the implementation of their new 5 year strategy.

Conclusion: beware what lies under the waterline!

The NAO story illustrates the synergy and traction organisational leaders can gain from working at the same time both ‘above’ and ‘below’ the waterline. For the NAO the ‘above’ work was the development of a new 5 year strategy whilst the ‘below’ work was understanding the culture, and its impacts on the processes and relationships by which they worked together.

Failing to pay attention to the second, less visible, work trips up our ability to get the primary work done.  Like an elephant in the room we ignore culture at our peril!