Insight article

Creating your own cultural revolution

‘Marks and Spencer needs a cultural revolution’ said the Sunday Times. In an interview with Chairman Archie Norman, he remarked that many ‘competent people, smart people… the glitterati of the British business establishment’ had come and gone from M&S’s board in recent years with very little impact. ‘There’s a reason for that’ he said. ‘The organisation and culture has made it very hard to change.’

It’s hardly surprising. When you’re running a business that’s 134 years old, and operating with nearly 85,000 employees, the Board must sometimes feel like they’re steering a great big supertanker, when what is needed in today’s retail environment is an agile speedboat. And good old M&S is not alone. Over the last couple of years, we’ve worked with large businesses in over 20 different industries. They are all having to respond to seismic changes, and creating that speedboat culture is a consistent challenge for their Executive teams.

But 85,000 employees is nothing compared to the size of the wider society we live in. And here we seem to be going through a purple patch of cultural revolutions. Mindsets and assumptions are being challenged and changed on a daily basis, leading to real changes in behaviour. Look at the changing views about immigration that influenced the Brexit vote. Or the ‘Me Too’ movement that is challenging sexual behaviour at work. Or our view about the environmental effects of plastic and how it’s affecting the way we shop.

What can we learn from these movements of change? Looking across all three examples we can see a number of consistent factors that are, unsurprisingly, also at play in businesses that are successfully creating their own revolutions. Here we’ve identified eight…

1. At the heart of each movement there is an emotionally compelling narrative that challenges previous assumptions and creates a rallying cry for change. As with all good stories, these narratives come with an inciting event that engages us and motivates us to rethink. For the environmental effects of plastic we have to thank the wonderful BBC series Blue Planet. Week after week it led us into the incredible world of our oceans, and enabled us to befriend its creatures. Then at the end it dropped its bombshell, as the consequences of our disposable plastic lives was laid out for all to see (and sea). ‘Me Too’ didn’t start with Harvey Weinstein, but the revelations of what he got up to propelled this movement into the wider consciousness. And the same could be said for the news coverage generated by the displacement and migration of refugees from Syria, North Africa in recent years.

2. A charismatic leader steps up to say ‘follow me’, and provide a figurehead for the revolution. Who didn’t feel motivated when a 92-year old David Attenborough called us from the side of a precarious bobbing boat? You may not have felt the same about Nigel Farage, but many did. And if you’ve not heard Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes, then do… and makes notes. It is highly compelling.

3. Each movement also takes on an identity; like ‘Me Too’. These identities not only help to build awareness of the movement, but they also give us something to be part of; a community or tribe we can belong to. They play an influential role in how we behave. The violence at football grounds in the 70’s and 80’s demonstrated that we are motivated to act in ways that protect our identities. And studies in political voting have shown that we often ask ourselves, when making decisions, what would people like us do.

4. Meanwhile, these narratives are reinforced by a drip feed of illustrative stories, cleverly curated by supportive news editors. At the hight of the migration crisis, hardly a week went by without the Daily Mail sharing another horror story about what UK immigrants were getting up to. These stories have a clever effect in allowing us to discover for ourselves how the narrative is developing. Our own ideas and views are, of course, the ones we cherish most and tend to act on

5. Which leads us to the critical factor that all cultural movements, in business or society need – an invitation to people that they can make a difference. Climate change has had its narratives, its stories and its leaders over the years. But, certainly in the past, most people, however motivated, have felt powerless to do anything about it – at least without radically undermining their lifestyles. When Attenborough called to us from that bobbing boat, there was already in place a way of taking action – reusable shopping bags. Now we can all be ‘cultural activists’. Farage gave his movement a party to vote for, and through it a route to a referendum. The ‘Me Too’ movement offers a range of activities, from marches and social media to rethinking office etiquette.

6. But shifting established behaviours is not easy. We are, after all, creatures of habit. So sometimes movements need a little help. Nudging behaviours has become a hot topic in Government and a great example is the 5p tax on plastic bags. The tax is a consistent reminder that every time you use a disposable bag, you and the environment are paying for it.

7. Now the activists need to the support of other leaders: people in positions of power and influence that can make change happen. In these examples they respond in a number of different ways. The UK Government forces companies to publish measures on sexual equality. Supermarket chiefs publish goals for reducing single-use plastics. And the Conservative party instigates a referendum on Europe and implements controversial policies on immigration. Hollywood studio bosses drop ‘A listers’ with allegations hanging over them, and reshoot films to edit them out of existence.

8. So a new set of illustrative stories start to emerge; stories that illustrate symbols of change; stories that show the effect that activists are having; stories that reinforce the belief that they are not alone, that others are thinking and acting like them: stories that create cultural ‘heroes’. Women wear black at award ceremonies. Political parties change their policies. Major food brands pledged to eradicate unnecessary single-use plastic, radically change their packaging as a result. Britain votes to leave the EU.

Back to business. Large companies, like M&S, are masters at systemising the way they do things. They know it produces faster results at greater scale. Yet this thinking is often not applied to driving culture change. Many of these factors are in play. They are part of human nature. But they are not co-ordinated in way that maximises their pace and effectiveness. The cultural revolutions that are taking place outside business, are indicative of the pace of change that is being embraced by the customers and consumers that businesses rely on. To survive, businesses have to match this pace. If companies want to be as proud of their future as they are of their past, they need to work on their own cultural revolutions.

Marcus Hayes

Co-founder and Director