Want to change your culture? Go green…

Taking lessons from permaculture may be the best way to create a sustainable culture change

As Kermit the Frog memorably put it, “it’s not easy being green” as anyone will know who’s unwrapped and binned or attempted to recycle the plastic from their weekly grocery shop. With images of plastic-bound sea life in our heads we might be feeling a creeping sense of despair… So why apply green principles to the equally vexed question of how to change your organisation’s culture?

The short answer is that it makes a lot of sense to do so – particularly if you want the change to be beneficial and long-lasting. Here’s how…

Culture change – the perennial problem

I’ve lost count of the number of organisations I’ve sat in where there’s an expressed wish that “if we could only change the culture” then the desired change would happen or be a lot easier to make happen. This is a common misconception: that culture is a “thing” that can be changed, like a process or an IT system. It’s not: it’s a consequence of people and systemic issues such as reward mechanisms, recruitment and so on. Affecting culture requires an understanding of these various factors and their interplay but very often leaders prefer a dramatic intervention such as replacing the top team or laying off staff to achieve what are inevitably short-term benefits.

Something more sophisticated is required and rather than come up with my own patented fool-proof culture change method (lubricated with several litres of snake-oil) I’d like to propose the application of some existing principles that will make you think more deeply about the impact of the change you are effecting.

These principles come from a sustainability approach called permaculture. In summary, permaculture – the name derives from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture” – is an approach to living that has less of a detrimental approach to the planet. In a discussion with some friends about the topic recently I was struck by how relevant these were to organisational change.

Principals for permanence

Permaculture is based on 12 design principles. There are plenty of good summaries around which are worth looking at. Here’s my take on how they might apply in a commercial organisation

1. Observe and interact

It’s so tempting – particularly if you’re a consultant or a leader operating on a tight timescale – to come up with solutions quickly and implement them as rapidly as possible. Taking time to engage and understand an organisation is critical if you want to identify the points of resistance and, more importantly, the areas of support that will be important in making the proposed change stick.

2. Catch and store energy

In pure agricultural terms this is another way of saying “make hay while the sun shines” – an old saw but often overlooked when implementing change. What are the best times to introduce a change (clue: probably not when you’re doing annual appraisals)? Where are the areas of organisation with more energy and support for the change you want to introduce (hint: start with these first).

3. Obtain a yield 

The reason we do agriculture is that we need our efforts to yield something. Sustainable culture change in an organisation is the same: we need to understand the benefits of what we are doing, whether hard financial measures or softer attitude surveys. Having a good benefits management discipline really helps here.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

In the permaculture context, self-regulation means putting in the appropriate feedback loops so that a system can continue to function well. In an organisational context, this fits well with continuous improvement approaches such as Kaizen, or the application of systems theory. Understanding what feedback mechanisms – formal and informal – regulate an organisation’s behaviour and then altering them gradually is key to sustainable change.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services 

The Shock of the New was an acclaimed TV series on modern art but I think the title could often be applied to approach used to create a shift in an organisation’s culture, whether it’s “new” concepts (like customer-centricity – mea culpa) or new customers, people, technology or processes. Introducing something new consumes resource (it’s more expensive to acquire new customers than to keep existing ones) whereas it’s better to reduce unnecessary consumption where possible: what existing value is locked up in current customers and people and how can you unlock it?

6. Produce no waste 

Permaculture emphasises valuing and making use of all available resources. Leaving aside my concerns about how much packaging goes to waste, businesses are incredibly wasteful of the talent that’s locked up in their people and the goodwill of their customers. Take a “zero waste” mindset to your business see how it changes your perception of how to create value.

7. Design from patterns to details

This is one of the more obscure permaculture principles but it’s intended to force thinking about the big picture in environmental terms. Effective change management definitely takes this approach – at least in theory – by stepping back and observing how processes work (or not) end-to-end and asking the question “who do they serve?” (clue: if the answer is “the customer” that’s a good thing).

8. Integrate rather than segregate

My gardening knowledge is limited but I do know that if you plant marigolds amongst your tomatoes the chance of them being attacked by harmful root-rotting nematodes is reduced. Permaculture emphasises putting things in places where supportive relationships develop. How often do we do the opposite in organisations and intentionally create barriers and internal competition?

9. Use small and slow solutions 

As someone who cut their consulting teeth in the heyday of business reengineering – the father of which, Michael Hammer, was fond of saying “if it ain’t broke, break it” and where “big change, fast” was the guiding mantra – the idea of being small and slow is anathema to me. However, it’s worth considering how much attrition was caused in those swashbuckling reengineering projects and whether the changes were sustained in the long term.

10. Use and value diversity 

In agriculture, diversity increases resilience to disease and with the commendable advent of diversity programmes across many organisations, we might think we’re ticking this box. I don’t think we’re there yet: bringing different points of view and thinking styles together constructively to solve business problems is valuing diversity not just ticking a compliance box.

11. Use edges and value the marginal

Once again, my knowledge of sustainable agriculture leads me to take at face value the permaculture claim that the interface between things is where the most interesting events take place but in businesses that’s definitely true, with the interface with customers the most productive area for change and innovation. The problem is that this marginal area is often not valued by organisations, leading to cultures that don’t place the customer at the centre of what they do.

12. Creatively use and respond to change

Finally, the most powerful principle of the twelve. Change managers like me might think that we are driving change (other powerful adjectives are available) but it’s more helpful to think of how we respond to change. The author William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions, recognises this: change is a sudden thing and it’s how we manage the transition to the new state that results that’s important. Taking a creative and constructive view of change events helps that transition.

It’s not easy…

Some of the principles may seem like the blindingly obvious, some a little obscure, but they strike me a setting a challenge for all of us engaged in organisational change: how do we carry it out in a way that increases the chances of sustained benefits? Using the principles to ask questions of and challenge our preconceptions about how change is managed will, I believe, result in change that benefits all of us.

As Kermit says, it’s not easy being green…

Acknowledgements: 1) the author would like to thank his friend Linda Murgatroyd for introducing him to the concept of permaculture 2) the author also recognises that Kermit the Frog was singing about his skin colour not the environment.

How strong is your “Alt-CV”?

Paying attention to the things not on a CV can be just as important as the things that are on it

Like most people I like to keep my CV and LinkedIn profile up-to-date. I think my CV and profile do a pretty good job of representing the “work me” – the qualities and experience that you might want to hire me or my company for.

But there’s another side that’s not revealed in the standard CV: it’s what I call my “Alt-CV” – the alternative CV that contains things that rarely, if ever, make it onto a regular CV.

It’s all about me

As I’ve got older, I’ve noticed that some of my contemporaries’ LinkedIn profiles have started to including straplines such as “lady of leisure at retired” and “golf course tester at taking some time out”. With that in mind I decided my headline/summary on my Alt-CV should include things like:

  • Part-time barista – I make a pretty good cappuccino
  • Baker – I’ve started baking my own bread and have to say the results are pretty good
  • Regular contributor to BBC Radio 3 – I regularly email their Essential Classics show in the morning with “playlist suggestions” and occasionally get a shout-out (although for a classical music show that’s probably the wrong term)
  • Guitar collector – I own a total of six guitars and occasionally play them

These are deliberately light-hearted but, whilst they won’t get me hired – although I have deployed an acoustic guitar on a couple of occasions in a work context – they represent some of the things that are important to me.   

Monkey business

A few years ago, I had my first one to one with a member of my new team. I suggested that if we were to discuss development and career progression it should be in the context of what she wanted to do with her life. The result surprised me: “I’d really like to work with wild animals” she said. Barely suppressing a quip that some sales managers in the company were pretty untamed, I said that I couldn’t directly advise on that career path but if that was a personal objective, she ought to see how she could work towards it. Following a reorganisation shortly afterwards I moved to a new team, so my career development advice was apparently short-lived. However, I got an invitation about a year later to the team member’s leaving drinks as she was about to take a three-month sabbatical. At the event she thanked me publicly for giving her the nudge to pursue her ambition: she was about to spend her time volunteering in three different animal sanctuaries in the Far East…

I’d like to be able to say she went on to run a ground-breaking conservation charity but, in fact, she came back after her trip and decided that, whilst it had been immensely enjoyable, she had decided that she didn’t want to pursue that as a life goal after all and went back to her previous job. The last I heard she was still there and considering weekend volunteering at a wildlife centre near her home.


Whilst I don’t claim my career advice in the above example was especially innovative or unique, I was implicitly acknowledging that my colleague had a life outside of work and that that was just as important as her life at work. Allowing people to bring their “whole self” to work is key in helping them feel more fulfilled and engaged and results in better performance, with a knock-on beneficial effect on customers and the bottom line.

NextTen’s Richard Horner has turned this into an approach – the Framework of Champions – that provides a systematic method of helping employees align their own personal purpose with that of the organisation. Companies that have adopted this have reported dramatic improvements in growth rates, financial performance and engagement with some areas showing results inside a month.

Whilst you’ll always find high-performing people who want to keep their work and personal lives entirely separate, there’s much to be gained as a leader and a team-member from having a strong “Alt-CV” and making it visible.

Could you care more? Avoiding the Guaranteed Formula for Failure

Leading with compassion makes you a better leader

How many times have you said “I couldn’t care less what they think” in relation to a work or personal matter?

It feels good doesn’t it? You can stand alone, proud of your own position and invincible point of view?

Unfortunately, it’s also the most corrosive attitude you can take in the modern workplace.

Here’s why: I call it the Guaranteed Formula for Failure (GaFF, if you prefer).

We’ve spent years reinventing the way that organisations are structured: streamlined and automated to deliver better, faster and/or cheaper than the competition. We’ve got smarter and smarter people working in these organisations: we hire the best we can get and get them to perform to help make us even better, faster or cheaper. Those who don’t perform don’t rise to the top and may be encouraged, gently or otherwise, to work elsewhere. A bit of constructive stress keeps everyone on their toes and striving to be better and what they do, every day.

A guaranteed formula for success, right?


The formula I outline above is an idealised one if your workforce consists of machines and, since that day’s a long way off, organisations need to realise that they are made up of human beings who, whatever you may like to think, turn up each day with their own set of quirks, grievances, stresses and strains. Managing that diversity constructively is the hallmark of truly effective leadership. And that requires one quality that’s not often talked about: compassion.

Café society

These thoughts came to mind after a highly stimulating “Knowledge Café”, organised by knowledge management expert David Gurteen. David’s been running these for last 16 years after realising that at the typical PowerPoint-slide-and-speaker-based conference, the most interesting parts were the conversations that occurred in the coffee breaks – often between strangers. He designed the cafés to stimulate active and engaging conversation amongst attendees.

At a recent event, Mark Coles, from the NHS London Leadership Academy introduced the topic of “Paying Attention to Attentiveness” – essentially how we can care more for each other in the business environment, or perhaps whether that was asking too much in an increasingly pressured workplace.

Through Mark Coles’ introductory talk and the ensuing discussion groups taking the topic as a start point, I found a few themes starting to emerge:

  • Pressures on organisations particularly when running at full capacity (a problem the NHS is experiencing in spades right now) mitigates against what might be called “compassionate leadership” – leaders are challenged to find the time and space for their teams to share what’s bothering them. But if you’re not listening to conversations, how can you be aware of the challenges your people face?
  • Leaders and managers may not recognise that they have a “duty of care” to their teams, although this is the basis of genuine employee engagement.
  • “Listening cleanly” or authentic listening (listening without layering on your own prejudices and opinions) is a skill that leaders may need to practice.
  • Line managers are growers of talent and the much-maligned middle manager has a key role as motivator of change. This is true even in “holacratic” organisations such as Zappo’s that still have middle managers even if they may not be referred to as such.

Against therapy

The above list might suggest that businesses need to turn themselves into massive therapy groups but that’s a massive misconception: therapy has its place but only for those who genuinely need it. However, what the discussions in the Knowledge Café recognised is that the effective leaders created space to manage the conflicting opinions, stresses and strains that are an inevitable by-product of any workplace.

Some structures and techniques were suggested that people had found to work: I was particularly struck by one software team leader who used an “escalation unicorn” as a means for her team members to raise issues. The unicorn (a toy one, obviously) was held by the member dealing with a critical issue that threatened the team’s progress, as a means of signalling that they were working on it. The team leader had created an environment where working on the hard stuff – and having hold of the unicorn – was seen as a motivator: dealing with difficult issues was therefore positively encouraged.

Another technique that was cited was originated by KM doyen Dave Snowden and is known as “ritual dissent”. This involves teams or groups offering criticism or support to members while the recipient’s back is turned. This both depersonalises and legitimises constructive criticism and is particularly effective in validating new ideas.

I’m not advocating either of these as magic bullet solutions to the challenge of managing diverse groups of individuals, but it is important leaders create “psychological safety” to allow dissent. As I pointed out in relation to the recent – indeed ongoingdebacle with TSB’s IT systems, it’s those dissenting voices that may point out the truth of the situation.

Passion and compassion

Compassion is a word that crops up mostly in relation to situations outside of the workplace: it’s what we feel when something awful happens to someone – whether that’s someone we know, or someone affected by a disaster on the other side of the world. It stirs us to action, helping us to do something, even if that’s donating to a relief effort or lending an ear to a friend who’s going through a hard time.

There’s no reason why such a basic human quality should be excluded from the workplace. In fact, it makes workplaces much more effective: it means that leaders and managers, far from losing their focus on the hard performance criteria their teams have to deliver, recognise that these are not simple diktats that have to be obeyed, but negotiated to allow each team member to deliver according to their skills and development needs.

It’s a quality that underpins NextTen’s approach to customer success, using the F.A.S.T. principles originated by Gordon Tredgold. As customer experience makes the evolution from “nice-to-have” to business essential, there will be many tough conversations to be had.

Those firms that hold them in a compassionate and caring environment will be the ones that achieve real success.