John Forrester of Colander Associates explains the importance of Practice Culture and why it must not be taken for granted...
It is worrying that so many practices take their culture for granted and yet it is the very thing that differentiates one from another…
What is practice culture?
Culture is “the way we do things around here” – the vibe that pervades the workplace. It is created by highly subjective things like attitudes and behaviours: it reflects underlying human values.
Having a workforce of technically proficient architects, or fabulously talented designers, might not be enough to ensure business survival and prosperity. We all know that commercially-led practices always feel and behave differently to design-led practices and, as many know to their cost, a strategic move from one towards the other can be particularly tricky to achieve, regardless of the talent that is recruited. Success will depend on how those talents are integrated and applied. Hence the importance of attributes such as teamwork and collaboration, decisiveness, honesty and integrity, punctuality and dependability, entrepreneurial confidence and a readiness to express ideas – or to listen to and work with the ideas of others.
Feel the culture
It is striking how, on first entering a practice, aspects of culture can be immediately apparent. There are wide variations in the extent to which practices feel welcoming, vibrant, energising, positive, professional, businesslike or fun. Little things can (and do) make a great difference – eye contact, an engaging smile, attentiveness, politeness, confidence, sincerity and humour. Of course, it’s not just us that notice these cultural aspects, so too do potential clients and possible recruits.
If nurtured, then a practice’s culture can evolve positively and purposefully and this is useful because a clearly communicated cultural vision brings certainty and consistency. Inappropriate or unhelpful attitudes and behaviours are minimised, conflict and stress are reduced, harmony and collaboration are increased, and productivity and efficiency are maximised. Which is why, once a cultural norm or direction is established, every senior player will need to take responsibility for maintaining or attaining it, not least through their day-to-day role modelling of desirable attitudes, behaviours and qualities: if the bosses behave badly, the chances are that everyone else will as well.
Evolution is inevitable
But, a practice’s culture is never static: people and circumstances continually evolve over time. However, it is particularly vulnerable when a practice grows rapidly and has to integrate a large number of new people or instigate added managerial processes, better-defined responsibilities or hierarchical structures. Choosing people with the right attitude is critical. It is not enough to simply ask: “can they do the job and will they do the job?”, it is also important to understand: “will they fit in?”. And, it is difficult to gauge whether someone will fit in if the practice’s culture has never been consciously acknowledged. A clearly communicated cultural vision also helps to shape a potential employee’s expectations of working in the practice. New people will be assimilated much more quickly, seamlessly and productively if a culture is explicit.
It is for cultural reasons that mergers and acquisitions often fail, as two established cultures come together and clash. Equally, a move away from a strongly hierarchical partnership to an employee owned structure can be tricky, unless efforts are made to ensure cultural compatibility.
A learning environment
A practice will realise huge benefits if, through its culture, it can engender high performance teams.
The best way to achieve consistent and prolonged high performance is by becoming a so-called ‘learning organisation’. Whilst the end benefits certainly justify the efforts, creating a learning culture in the first place requires determination, inspirational leadership and the willingness and ability to “walk the talk” from the practice leaders, as well as commitment and faith from everyone else.
In a learning organisation, continual learning and professional development are keenly promoted, along with a strong teamwork ethic and a genuine desire to improve. Such organisations feature a culture of openness and a willingness to offer and accept ‘matter-of fact’ feedback – both praise and criticism – as and when appropriate. Feedback is always given and received in a constructive and empathetic way with positive intent. In this regard, hierarchy is largely ignored because employees feel that they can provide honest feedback to their seniors without fear of recrimination. The intention is to bring benefits to the individual, the team and the practice by boosting everyone’s willingness and ability to do things well.
It goes without saying that, to be successful, this feedback must encompass not just the specifics of the task but also attitudinal and behavioural issues; in other words, the impact of someone’s enthusiasm or negativity upon the team and therefore on the practice and its culture.