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The Impact Navigator: Our Culture

Who are we, and what is our organisational culture? (Sphere 2)

Wherever humans come together, there is culture which encompasses the knowledge, beliefs, customs, capabilities, and habits of individuals in these groups. Any group or organisation has a distinct culture and a culture they aspire to. Organisational culture determines how people in the organisation work and interact with each other. It includes collective values, norms, and behaviours. A good organisational culture is important to make people happy and to retain them in their workplace. Therefore, one of the key concerns of organisational leaders is establishing and retaining a good culture or shifting towards a new and better culture.

A few years back, I was coaching the leader of a Gandhian organisation. They aspire to an organisational culture which follows the Gandhian principles of truth, sacrifice, non-violence, selfless service and cooperation. During the strategy process of the organization, low staff motivation was seen as one of the main limitations to increasing the impact. To get to the bottom of the problem, he collected feedback from his community workers. In an emotional call, he reported that his field worker did not comply with Gandhian principles any longer. They were mainly in for the money, he said.

When Peter Drucker stated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” he referred to the importance of organisational culture which is perhaps the most important sphere if you want to create something unique and move your organisation forward. He meant that culture always determines the success of your organization regardless of how well-presented or effective your strategy may be.

How would you describe your organisational culture?

Hierarchic, open, innovative, respectful, and performance-oriented, …?  I am sure there are many ways to describe your organisation’s culture.

As a leader of the organisation, you are automatically a critical determinant of culture. Here are a few aspects you may want to consider in your work.  

  1. As an organisational leader, you are like a torchbearer of the organisational culture and you are, together with the other leaders and the team, responsible for developing or sustaining a culture which is positive and fit for purpose.

  2. Often there is not only one culture in the organisation but sometimes teams or departments have their own sub-culture, which might have evolved due to individual personalities or because of certain events. If the culture gap widens, such a cultural drift might become problematic, and leaders would usually try to bring those teams back into the mainstream of the organisation.

  3. As a leader, you may want to encourage somewhat different cultures in different teams. For instance, you may want to have a culture of innovation and agility in your research and development team, while the finance and logistics team should be solid and conservative. I am sure you came across such contradicting cultures in your organisation. Such differences in culture within the organisation can create tensions. The agile research team for instance may think that the finance team is always too slow in procuring the services they require.   

  4. Cultural change is usually a longer-term undertaking and requires vision and determination by the leadership. To make a larger cultural shift, leaders need to consider several leverage points such as revising structure and decision-making processes, hiring new people, and systematically encouraging certain values and behaviours.

  5. The for-purpose world has a fascinating diversity of organisational cultures. Just think of churches, alternative communities, or unions. While those cultures continue to exist, performance-oriented and corporate mainstream cultures have also influenced large parts of the for-purpose world.  This is not necessarily bad, but leaders should be aware of alternative models to make informed choices. 

But let us go through the elements that define your organisational culture one by one.

Values and Norms (Element 2.1)

It has become a common component of organisational development to define organisational values. Values are then introduced, and the leadership seeks to put them into practice. Three to five organisational values are recommended. More than that will blur the picture and make it difficult to communicate and follow up.

In for-purpose organisations, some of the main questions to develop values are:

  • How do we want to serve our target groups?

  • What are our shared passions/values that drive our actions?

  • How do we want to collaborate among ourselves and with partners to create change?

Some values may not be needed as specific organisational values, as they are universal and fundamental values and apply to any organisation. Such fundamental values are trust and respect.  Without trust and respect, little can be done. 

Here are a few examples:

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private funding organisation in the world, has the following values: Optimism, collaboration, rigour, innovation and inclusion.

  • Oxfam: Equality, empowerment, solidarity, inclusiveness, accountability and courage.

  • Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: Humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality: these seven Fundamental Principles sum up the Movement's ethic (…).


Norms: Norms are the practical and observable side of values and culture. No acceptance of bribes, swear words and late coming might be some of the more basic behavioural norms which are written down in a code of conduct or an organisational policy. However, many norms are not documented. For instance: to enforce the value of collaboration, many organisations adopted the habit of asking personal questions at the beginning of each meeting and of always having video-on during online meetings. Those behaviours might not need to be written down.

Structure and Processes (Element 2.2)

This element of the organisational design is very challenging in any organisation nowadays as we experience:

-          An increase in the speed of processes

-          An increase in complexity

-          A lack of resources

-          An increase in compliance requirements

Managing the day-to-day operations within these constraints is difficult. How do we organise the processes? How do we manage the information and communication within and between the different departments? How do we learn and progress in our teams and in the organisations as a whole? Learning and communication often constitute key challenges and need to be addressed and organised as organisational processes.

To understand processes, it is useful to map the most important processes and categorize them. In Organisational Development we usually differentiate three types of processes:

  • Core Processes: Where we deliver value and impact to our target groups or partners, for instance facilitating the development of community groups, constructing irrigation systems, or providing services to the elderly.

  • Support Processes: Which processes need to be aligned with the core processes? Very often this is IT, HR, logistics, and admin.

  • Steering Processes: Who is in charge of overseeing, steering and navigating the organisation and its units, and how are decisions made? 


Closely related to the processes are structures and roles within the organisation and its teams.

  • The structure of the organisation is the description of the units: Headquarters, field or operations team, marketing, finances, administration, logistics, HR, IT etc.

  • Roles: The assigned people must have clear roles & responsibilities as well as workplace skills for their jobs. The goal is usually a high level of self-responsibility and competence in any workplace.

Like with the other elements, there is always a gap between the theoretical structure and processes, and the practised ones that exist. It is the task of the leaders of an organisation to close the gap between theory and practice and adjust/improve the processes and structure to the ever-changing demands and challenges of the organisation. 

People (Element 2.3)

The good news is that more and more people realize that purpose is an important part of a fulfilling life. That money is not everything and that passion matters. Engaging people with passion is what the for-purpose world is about. 

The bad news is that there is a war on talent, a term coined by McKinsey’s Steven Hankins 25 years ago. It refers to an increasingly competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees. This is the reality for many for-purpose organisations too. They are competing with the private sector, and with other for-purpose organisations, even with their partners.

For leaders, getting the right employees or volunteers is a core task, and it requires prioritization and strategic leadership. Some of the key questions concerning people are:

  • Culture fit: Most importantly, do the people of the organisation match the passion, ambition and culture of the organisation?

  • Competencies: Are they bringing the right skills and are they able to use their skills and create value and impact in the organisation? How can you develop competencies and make the organisation a good learning environment?

  • The right mix: Much is talked about diversity. Do we have the right mix of people with different perspectives, competencies, and behaviours to create great teams which can move the cause forward?

  • Retention and happiness management: Finally, we will only be able to retain productive and ambitious staff or volunteers if they are satisfied and happy. Apart from payments, appreciation and continuous learning, satisfaction and happiness in the for-purpose world are closely connected to truly engaging people in meaningful initiatives and change processes. How are you engaging your staff and volunteers?


Exercise questions on culture and people:

  1. Cultural Alignment: Are your values and norms aligning with your everyday actions and the actions of your team members?

  2. Structure and Processes: Are structures and processes well-defined, and do you as a leader pay attention to implementing them?

  3. Structure and Processes: Do we have good capacities to carry out the different processes?

  4. Talent Attraction: How effective are we in attracting and retaining the right talent for our organization?

  5. Diverse Perspectives: Do we embrace diversity in people and ideas within our organization?

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