Developmental Culture


Human beings have survived and thrived all over the world because we are naturally superb at learning and adapting to changing circumstances. Organisations can also become places where learning takes place naturally and easily, without having to be driven. If your organisation is to survive and thrive, you may need to think and plan how to help it learn and adapt too. An organisation’s culture is the set of habits, assumptions, common behaviour, values and skills that influence the behaviour and attitudes of most of the people in the organisation most of the time. It can encourage or inhibit learning. The culture usually “just is”; however, you can decide to influence or change it, if you wish.

The rest of this note describes some of the features of an ideal culture to support development and some things you can do to create one. You will already have or do some of these and may wish to strengthen or spread them more widely. Some of the thoughts may be new.

What happens in a developmental culture?

  • People think about the long term and the short term

Doing anything different takes time and energy. Organisations need some slack so people have time to think and plan, try new things and reflect. Of course, short-term objectives and activities are vital but development is very difficult if there is no time to learn because every moment is taken up with “doing”. You can use a bit of the slack to think about the things you do and decide if they all need doing.

  • A way forward? 

Spend an hour at a meeting of your workgroup taking turns to talk about the work you do. Decide together what is the least valuable work and agree not to do it. This should create some slack.

  • Leaders are models of developmental behaviour and attitudes

People want to copy attractive and successful behaviour, particularly of leaders. If top managers, for example, show their appreciation of people trying new things, even if they are not immediately successful, they will encourage others to do the same. If you practice the ideas listed here, people in the rest of the organisation will copy you.

  • A way forward?

Discuss the ideas in this list with a colleague and decide which one(s) appeal to you the most. Try some small experiments in low-risk situations, and see what happens.

  • Good ideas come from everywhere

An idea can come from anywhere in the organisation or outside. People will give you their ideas if they see you as willing to listen to them with an open mind. This is worth doing systematically. In a year Toyota employees produced 1.9 million suggestions for improvements and 90% were implemented. You could start by asking the people who work for you, individually, or in a group, what thoughts they have about what is working well and what ideas they have about how to make their and your work effective and more enjoyable. Good ideas can “hide” anywhere. How about asking your customers or suppliers for their thoughts on how you/they might be able to work better together?

  • A way forward?

Think about an area of work where improvement would be valuable. Ask people who might know about it for any ideas they may have. Listen carefully and show your appreciation for their contribution.

  • People work in a stimulating environment

The physical environment influences people. We make our homes interesting, if we can, with objects and pictures that reflect who we are and stimulate thought and happy memories. The work environment can be just as rich if we want it to be. This may well help people be more creative. It would help them appreciate the variety and richness of the mixture of people and their experiences and resources. Standard environments will encourage conformity. You need some difference to spark development.

  • A way forward?

Make your own office or place of work more personal and more interesting by putting up a picture or two or some posters that mean something to you. Observe the effect this has on you and people who visit you.

  • People have scope to act and are helped to act intelligently

Most people respond well to having a few clear goals and being encouraged and supported to reach them. They need to have the authority and resources they require to achieve their goals. When the goals of the group, department and company are also clear, it is relatively easy to make intelligent decisions about priorities. You will free more energy from people if you limit the external rules they have to follow to the minimum required for conforming to regulations. People can work together to find the best system to do work and operate it. Then they will follow rules they invent themselves and are committed to following.

  • A way forward?

Share your perceptions of the goals of your company, department and group with your colleagues and staff. Talk with your staff about their work goals and ask them about any “rules”, written or unwritten that get in their way. If there are any, think about how to question or change them.

  • There is excellent informal communication

If people are to learn well, they need to understand a situation or a possibility both fully and from lots of different viewpoints. A solution may require inputs from different places within and without the organisation. These require an effective network of informal communication where people can easily exchange ideas and experiences. You can encourage this by having simple informal meetings where people build trusting relationships and learn about each other’s skills and interests. When you have met, it is much easier to ask for help and offer it. E-mail and electronic networking could supplement this.

  • A way forward?

Set up a large group event where people can meet and talk about their work hopes and concerns and start to help each other. “Open Space” is a good structure and process.

  • Learn from mistakes

If you try anything new or give people scope, mistakes are inevitable. If you make a mistake, apologise, think about what happened and why and how to avoid making the mistake in future. If someone else makes a mistake, you can talk with that person about what happened and why and how to avoid the mistake happening again. By working together, without blaming, you will create co-operation and learning. Blaming will create defensiveness and mistrust so is much less helpful.

  • A way forward?

The next time something goes wrong, talk it over in the spirit of the above idea. This will help you see if the process is productive.

Ø    Focus on what works and spread good practice

In any organisation, many things work well, sometimes remarkably well. You can help your organisation develop by looking for what works and talking about it. For example, a manager in one part of the organisation might have a very effective way of getting comments from his/her customers that help with customer service. In a developmental culture, it would be both natural and expected for that manager to talk about what he/she did with other managers etc. This would lead to everyone’s practice rising to the standards of the best.

  • A way forward?

Take turns next time you meet as a management group or with your team, talking about what has gone well for each of you in the last two weeks and what has led to this. Then take a few minutes to reflect on the value you have got from working like this.

  • People ask for and offer help

It takes a big person to admit their vulnerability by asking for help. However, no one is good at everything and one of the advantages of an organisation is that there are people around whose job it is to help. Asking for help is actually a sign of strength, not weakness. You can also offer help gently to people who appear to be struggling and let them know that you see accepting your help as a sign of strength too. Often, just listening to someone as he or she thinks aloud is the most helpful thing you can do.

  • A way forward?

If you feel a bit stuck on something, go and talk it over with a colleague. Ask that person to listen to you for a few minutes. You will find that after a minute or two your thoughts will have become clearer and you will know what to do.

  • Talk to each other about how you do things

People work together in organisations to produce valuable products or services. In order to do so, they use some skills that are universal. Some that occur to me are listening to each other and your customers etc., sharing information, learning from experience, solving problems, developing people, making decisions, investing resources, developing new products and services, marketing and selling. In a developmental culture, there are constant conversations about how you do these things and you could do them better. You will have other items to add to the list, all are important.

  • A way forward?

Talk to a colleague about any of these that you care about. For example, you could say, “I would love to know how you go about developing your people, I find it quite difficult and could do with some new ideas”.


These are my first thoughts. I would appreciate your comments on this note. I would like to know what you have found valuable or thought-provoking, about it. If you have thoughts on how to make it more useful, please let me know.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick