Culture Change

With the rugby world cup in full swing and (sadly) England Rugby taking a bit of a battering in the press, I thought it topical to look at the concept of culture and culture change, based on the experience I had of sharing 20 minutes 1:1 with England head coach Stuart Lancaster...

You may have frequently heard your managers, leaders and coaches talk about the culture of their team or their organisation... but what is "culture?" The best definition I have ever come across is:

Culture is simply the behaviours that "we" as a group choose to accept.

The 'we' being the team, tribe or cohort of people that we are working with or dealing with at any given time.

In my role I have been privileged enough to share time with and work with some phenomenal people, including members of UK Special Forces, Sandhurst Sword of Honour winners, head coaches from other Olympic and Paralympic sports and tour coaches from the world of tennis and all of them have talked about developing a performance "culture".


Stuart Lancaster (England Rugby head coach) probably gave me the best insight into culture and cultural change. When he took over the role as England head coach he felt the need to fundamentally rebuild the training environment of the team. He established a new permanent training facility, convinced the marketing machine at the RFU that England play in White and that is part of their identity (and therefore to reduce the requirement for the team to wear the purple/grey/red change strips of recent years), but most all he involved the athletes in a change of culture at base level.

He challenged them to develop their own agreed behaviours, with the guiding principals being a) what it means to play for England Rugby? and b) what does it take to be Elite?

For a, he enlisted the help of many England greats from the past and invited them in to speak to the current squad about what it meant for them to wear the Red Rose, bizarrely this had never been done before and had a massive impact on the team. For b, he allowed the players to devise their own "rules", based on their own experiences and to reach a consensus of opinion amongst themselves. Although he wouldn't share what these agreed behaviours look like, one can assume they probably revolve around effort, professionalism, determination and working for each other.

In previous regimes there had been several conflicting "spheres of influence" within the England camp, accepting behaviours which were not necessarily conducive to elite performance. Lancaster created an environment where those in negatives spheres were either dropped from the team as their individual behaviours didn't fit the new agreed team behaviours or had to change their own behaviours in order to remain coherent in the group. Suddenly the sphere of influence changed and all the players are in one sphere - all working together for the greater good and challenging each other to continually be better. When a new player now joins the team, they have only one choice - to join their team mates in this new way of working, there is only one way, the England way. That is the Culture of England Rugby.

This approach fascinated me, as my own experience on cultural change in both sport and in business usually revolved around management imposing a set of "rules"  or "values" and claiming this is the company culture. It very rarely works as every individual interprets the values in a different way and some values may not be important to every person. So when it came to establishing a training culture for a new group of athletes I was to oversee, I decided to try the Lancaster approach.

We spent the first hour of our first camp of the training block allowing the players to establish the behaviours they wanted to adhere to and that they felt would guide them on their journey to elite.  Not only did the players agree to a set of behaviours, they agreed to self police them and still do to this day - most interestingly (considering tennis is an individual sport) most of the behaviours had roots in supporting each other, working hard for each other and not letting each other down in training - that became our "culture".

In many organisations that I have worked with the management team have selected a number of "values" for the company and asked that their employees live those values. Interestingly, most often those "values" are exactly the same as those of their competition and the same as those of businesses in other industry sectors - words like Honesty, Integrity, Passion and so forth. Such words are open to interpretation by those who are asked to live them, the behaviours associated with them may be perceived differently by each individual - they soon become espoused values and not values which are lived as one.

Effective culture change is not always best served by imposing values on a cohort - empowering the cohort to lead the change themselves is often the most effective and efficient route to developing an elite performance culture. Combine the values with associated behaviours and you start to have a very powerful recipe for success - the behaviours govern how everybody will live the values and therefore promote the performance culture.

If you would like help understanding and developing a working culture for you or your teams, please get in contact with us here to see how we can help...