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Creating a Sustainable Culture..?

Sustainability and Culture

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Sustainability is an area of current focus and aspiration. This applies, of course, to the environment and the global challenge of how we can work to protect and ensure our future on the planet.

However, ‘sustainability’ also applies in many more areas than just environmental protection – like business, economics, politics, education, healthcare – practically everything needs to be viewed through the lens of long-term viability and ethics.

Having worked for many years with organisations on service transformation and improvement initiatives, I’ve recently given this some honest and practical reflection. This has included questions such as;

‘How long have the changes and improvements made actually lasted in any organisation?’

‘How do we ensure that if we are making improvements they will really become embedded?’

‘What can or should we do differently to improve the sustainability of these types of changes?’

Constant change..?

For some time, there has been debate in the service management world around how we keep having to remind our industry of the same areas of learning – over and again. I still get asked questions that I got asked 25 years ago and more. Are we just not training properly? Are the messages and content wrong? Or, is this just a maturity and learning issue as it would be with any discipline?

Somehow it seems that the messages are not being delivered in a way that sticks with people and organisations…?

We can argue that this is due to poor training content or delivery, or also the way that content is consumed and interpreted. It does seem however that there are issues with the clarity of messages and how these can be made to stick…

In addition, and probably more of a concern, is the fact that organisations keep changing their approach. Many successful programmes and initiatives get scrapped or subsumed into other new and apparently ‘better’ or more ‘modern’ and ‘relevant’ ways of working. Often this is the result of vanity projects by key influencers, or also from external consultants or vendors bringing in new and expensive models. (yes I know, I’m also a consultant…!).  

Often the changes are relevant due to wider corporate changes or acquisitions, or there are good reasons for moving to new paradigms and practices. In many cases there are issues with how previous tools and models have been implemented, and these tools then get the blame for issues – so they ‘must’ be replaced..! (this has been a regular issue in the ITSM world for at least 25 years).

Change is of course a constant as we regularly hear – but does it really need to be? Or is the level of ongoing change really justified? I think organisations should always be looking to improve and develop, and sometimes they need to embrace change that is required and out of their control – e.g. regulatory or industry-disruptive.

Whilst I accept and expect that change needs to happen, I would be more supportive of this and of many ‘new’ models and tools, if I knew that each organisation really looked retrospectively at the cost of change and made a balanced risk and opportunity assessment before launching into the next ‘shiny’ thing. (see Paul Wilkinson’s post).

As an advisor I might return to an organisation, sometime after working with them, and they have changed everything and dumped what were perfectly good ideas and practices – as well as tools. I’d like of course that this just didn’t happen, but it does unfortunately.

I don’t think this is always just because the models or tools were wrong, or out of date, or even inadequately implemented. Most of the clients I know with good sustainable culture actually do not change these regularly or without good cause. The clue is in the word ‘culture’.


‘Culture’ – as in ‘how we work here’ is created and sustained by the leadership of an organisation.

If poor standards are allowed, then this is due to poor governance and influence. Where strong culture is promoted and maintained through inspiring example and consistent behaviour, then the organisation and its people will usually flourish. Where this is not maintained then the organisation will simply move from one new ‘shiny’ model, toolset or methodology to another, like a drunk trying to find their way home, staggering from one side of the street to the other…

The focus on what we do as organisations is defined though leadership, and any work to develop this will fail if this is not appreciated and attended to. Just sticking in tools or using models or following a new methodology will not change culture on their own and this is fundamental to how we improve and develop our sustainability.

Creating a sustainable culture

Most of the work I have done with clients over the years has basically been about good leadership and management. The thinking and development in this area has seen great moves over recent years, although most of this is not new – around being transparent, human, fair, curious, self-aware, supporting people, inspiring and leading by example, as well of course as decisive and pragmatic.

I was fortunate to work with some great managers early in my career who demonstrated these qualities. I’ve also been lucky to have worked with a few great organisations in recent years where ‘culture’ (leadership around how we do things here) has been excellent and also appreciated – so that the focus has been on maintaining and preserving good culture as observed.

It’s good to see less of the old ‘dinosaur’ ways of managing, where managers hide behind roles, use blame and bullying, cronyism, and who wield power and control through fear, division and selective use of knowledge and information.

In my experience there is also a clear benefit to the organisation or team from an open and collaborative approach, where leadership is earned and defined through mutual respect – people work better and respond better, and get things done more effectively in a respectful, enjoyable and supportive working environment.

‘Set the tone, build a team with a mix of people’ was how one of my early managers put it. She had put this into practice with teams of mixed ages, gender and background, where no particular demographic dominated, and where her own actions and behaviour were shining lights of influence.

Of course, in some situations – like the battlefield – there is a need for unswerving compliant behaviour – the ‘soldier mindset’. That’s a given, although again most soldiers will tell you that the best leaders and officers are those who display appropriate levels of humanity, fairness and integrity.  There is also still the need for context-aware leadership and the flexibility to use initiative when it’s needed in difficult situations.


There is little defence for poor management – only sticking rigidly to rules, or worse not applying the rules to themselves – this will not gain respect and support from people and colleagues.

Trust and respect – based on fairness above all, is key for any leader to be able to hold a team or a cohort of people to do their bidding.

Tools, technologies and other ‘shiny’ new ways of working can help and contribute to success, but will not do this on their own.

To build a sustainable culture we need to recognise that people respond to fair treatment and behaviour, and as leaders and managers we need to demonstrate that first and foremost.  We also need to be clear on the goals and objectives of the organisation and bet setting out how we will achieve these – within our culture. 

The same colleagues will also develop into leaders in future and recognise the value of the prevailing culture, and then work hard to maintain it – that’s true sustainability.

Jason Skidmore
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