The 4 S’s That Will Move Your Culture

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Getting your culture moving in the direction you need doesn’t have to be a mystery.  There are tangible actions you can take right now that will make a difference. 

I’ve named them the 4 S’s, and if you know the work of Frances Frei and Anne Morriss in Unleashed, and the body of work known as Systems Leadership developed by Ian Macdonald, Catherine Burke and Karl Stewart…you’ll already be familiar with some of these ideas.

First – my definition – culture is the shared understanding about the way you need act to fit in around here.  Don’t get too caught up in it…this works fine.

Here are the 4 S’s that cause culture to both get created and change….

  • Strategy
  • Structure
  • Systems
  • Symbols.

Let’s go…


Strategy in this context means ‘the work’.  Everything from the purpose of the organisation to how people know what they’re supposed to be doing…for culture purposes we can lump this all under the heading of ‘strategy’.  Purpose matters because it’s nice to not be wasting time.  Clarity of tasks matters because it’s nice not to be wasting time.  And everything in between matters because…you get the idea.

Put in a little more effort to get ‘the work’ itself clear, and you’ll see movement in the direction you want.  And by the way…..the work will never be properly ‘clear’….but you can definitely make it more clear than it is right now.  Big speeches are nice….conversations are best.


Fancy definition of structure from Elliott Jaques: “the systems of role relationships people hold in working together that establish the boundaries within which people relate to each other”.

It’s a bit technical…but it works!  As Tom Foster points out – structure sets the context in which people will act.   Creating more clarity on who is supposed to be able to ask who to do what is only going to help things…or flush out some issues that need to be flushed out.  Like adults.

Two things:

  1. the goal isn’t ‘perfect’ structure, its having a structure that can be understood for now, then having a regular conversation about whether it’s working.
  2. You don’t need to clarify every role relationship in the place, just the ones where you it will be needed.   You don’t put traffic lights on every corner.


Have you head one of the definitions of culture being “the way things are done around here?”  We can be more refined. 

You’ll see in my definition of Culture I use ‘shared understanding’…in other words, the intangible, or ‘felt’ part about the way things are supposed to be done around here.  Systems, on the other hand, are the tangible, observable version of the same thing – the way things are supposed to be done around here.

Same coin, different sides. Both influencing the other in an ongoing chicken-and-egg.  Which means our Systems are a key way in which Culture is created and changed.

Look at a system as any repeatable way in which work gets done.  The stationery ordering.  The car parking.  The actual IT system.  Informal and formal processes and procedures.  Checklists.  Lack of checklists.  These are all systems.

If these systems work well…the place feels like it works well.  If they are a source of wishing-the-meteorite-of-mercy-would-strike-us-all….then the place won’t feel like it works very well.  If the systems are efficient and a bit of fun…then the place will feel a bit more fun…you get the idea.

The trick is that those who have the authority to change the systems are often not the ones who are impacted by them.  When was the last time the CEO had to order their own stationery?  This is why posters on the wall and culture programs are ridiculed…just make something work better, and the culture will start going in the direction you want.

Word of advice – start small.  Look at how many systems you can make work better for everyone, and not the impact of each.   Fix one.  Then another.  You’ll get the hang of it.  And it’s crucial because Systems are also part of…


Messages are sent by everything.  Everything!  We are all unconsciously working out our place in things, so are continually looking for ‘signs’ about what’s OK.  Or what’s not OK.  That’s why everything is a Symbol!  This breaks down to…

Leader Behaviour

The biggest leverage one for all leaders is their own behaviour!  We can’t help it as humans – we look to the people who have power over us (legitimately or otherwise) for signs about how to act.  (And the opposite is true also!) Watch how a team takes on the personality traits of their manager.  Watch how the idea of a new leader causes conversation, concern and/or opportunity. 

Like it or not, as a leader, the way you act and respond to things has a direct impact on culture.  If this doesn’t suit you, remember you can always ask for a pay decrease.

Systems are Symbols

The way systems work is also symbolic.  What’s the dishes roster system? Who gets the fancy coffee?  Who gets what car parks?  All of these send a message. 

And I’m not making a generic judgement on who should get the car parks – I was made a General Manager at a young age and let my Managing Director know I didn’t want the car park.  He wisely pointed out that the Business Unit I was now in charge of had never had a dedicated GM before.  For them to have the only GM without a carpark would suggest that they weren’t yet a fully-fledged part of the organisation. 

Thanks to this advice I avoided a situation where my own values got in the way of what the people I was leading really needed.  (And BTW, the organisation now allocates car parks based on role-related need, and not on hierarchy position, both a reflection of, and a cause of, changing culture)

Symbols are Symbols

And, of course, don’t forget the actual symbols.  Posters, plants, layout, colours. Locations of teams.  They are all sending a message.  The one you want to avoid, of course, is ‘these managers are totally out of touch’.  Putting up stuff about innovation is a huge mistake when every idea requires five signoffs and a 10-page risk mitigation plan. 

Nothing wrong with posters that reflect what a team wants to say about itself, or that reflects the good that’s already there. But as a device to cause change… remember what you thought of posters when you were one of the people near the customers.  The posters haven’t got any better.  They still won’t work.

That’s why until you’ve built a track record of effective and trustworthy behaviour, it might be wise to address the Systems first…then follow up with the Symbols. Ted Lasso is a master at this.

Bringing it Home

Fair bit of work in working on all of Strategy, Structure, Systems and Symbols.  But none of this requires therapy.  For you, or for your people.  These are all tangible things that you can get to work on right away.

Stay consistent, keep making positive adjustments in all of these, and the culture will go in that direction.

In fact, it already is.  The only question is whether the direction is positive.

Now, over to you.

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