Today’s been a good day. My thinking has been jolted in a different way about my practice. My practice? That sounds like something a bit wanky.

Wait. Hold on. My practice, do I have one? Yes, yes I do. My work and beliefs are massively important to me and what I practice defines who I am and what I do. Sometimes it’s easy to lose this in the daily rigmarole.  The great news is I remembered today that I can get better at stuff through applying new techniques, practicing them and reflecting on them.

Today I have been coached in the art of presentation skills. Thanks to Steve Trister for an inspiring day.

The focus of the day was to talk about a subject for 2 minutes. Didn’t matter what it was about – the content was kind of irrelevant. It was how you were saying it that was the important bit. More to follow on that once I’ve processed day 2. So my story changed a bit throughout the day but the following is the extended version of my 2 minute talk on culture.


Ask yourself this question.

What… is….  culture?

Then ask yourself how do you explain culture change?

Take a minute – write down one sentence that you feel describes culture.

In L&D and HR there is a lot of talk about culture change, so collectively there has to be a good understanding of culture in the first place in order to change ‘it’.

Do you agree?

So what’s the answer to these questions?

I don’t have a definitive answer (sorry), but what I have been mulling over and processing for some time now is some way to understand organisational culture myself. This is the best I’ve got.


A dinner table, The office, DNA and a can of Febreze

These four things help me to understand culture and describe it.

This is important stuff, if I ever want to have a positive influence over the culture in an organisation I work in (which I do); I must first seek to understand what the culture is before anything else and be clear on what if anything needs to change.

It’s been about 4 years since I came across a video which provided me with a sentence that I could relate to when it comes to describing culture. It’s already been written about a lot and the video that has provoked my thoughts on this subject is this video by Prof. Sumantra Ghoshal

It’s a really interesting video and the metaphor that really resonates with me when describing culture is ‘the smell of the place’. So back to the four images.

The Sunday lunch

Imagine you’re joining your new partners’ family or a friends’ family at the dinner table for Sunday lunch. Consider how this might differ to your own experience of Sunday lunch with your own family or friends.

  • Is the table set differently?
  • Do you notice any different table manners?
  • Are there different personalities to your own family or friends?
  • Are they speaking in a different language or using different terminology?
  • Are they serving different food, using different or unusual ingredients?
  • It might be a familiar dish but does it tastes different somehow?
  • Are there different drinks or worst still no (alcoholic) drinks?
  • Different traditions?
  • What stories are being told – are they similar or different to the ones you’ve heard before?

How does the ‘meal experience’ make you feel?

The first week in a new office

Now imagine you’re starting a new role in a new organisation. You’re coming to the end of your first week. Consider the following things and how they may have compared to the last organisation you worked with.

  • What’s the working environment like?
  • How is it decorated – pictures on the walls, what do the meeting rooms look like?
  • What technology is used and provided?
  • What access to the internet do you get?
  • What is the language used or terminology?
  • How do your peers behave?
  • How do managers behave? Did you ever cringe watching the office?
  • How do the leaders behave?
  • What happens if you ask for help?
  • What happens if you make a mistake?
  • What are the stories being shared and told?
  • What are the expectations around your work and how you perform?

How does this ‘first week experience’ – make you feel?

It’s in the DNA

Culture isn’t something you can touch, it’s not something you can put your finger on or make assumptions about. When people talk about changing culture it’s important to dig deep.

So back to the smell; Both of the above situations might make you feel something because of the DNA make up that’s been created over time. Traditions and experiences that have evolved because of the people & processes involved in them. Whether that is how you eat lunch with your family or how you work in your organisation.

Both these situations and contexts provide you with a ‘smell of the place’. An invisible smell that makes you feel what you feel and either provides that sense of belonging or that sense that something isn’t quite right and doesn’t quite fit.

The Febreze Effect

It’s easier to mask smells than to get rid of them. Have you ever felt like you are constantly doing the same things over and over again? A hamster in a wheel – running faster and faster attempting to cross the line and stand on top of the culture change podium.

Attempts to get to this elusive ‘destination’ can involve spraying leadership & management programmes, soft skills development, new technologies, new mission statements, values and competency frameworks in to our organisations without truly understanding what is trying to be changed.

As a result, very little changes, the smells that are merely masked and eventually wear away like Febreze or cheap perfume, leaving what has always been.

The root cause of the smell and ultimately the same culture.

So the question to ask next time you hear someone talk about culture or culture change – is this….

Is this going to be the ‘Febreze effect’ – is it some programme or project being sprayed to mask a smell that will eventually fade away leaving what has always been or will the smell start to shift and will things start to smell differently, could the smell even change forever?

If nothing else, it will lead to an interesting conversation.


So this will be the content I turn in to my final 2 minute presentation….a much shorter version will be needed but to be honest it’s not the content that matters… will be how I say it that will make the difference and have the real impact.

I might share the video if I’m brave.