Culture as a driver of innovation and equity

Big Education has been a lot about ‘culture’ this week. Both internally, with the inaugural meeting of our ‘culture club’, looking at our ways of working as an organisation, and also with our ‘culture’ day as part of The Big Leadership Adventure.

Liz Robinson Co-Director, Big Education

Much banded around as an idea with organisational development and leadership, culture is a fascinating topic to really unpick and get under the skin of.

Every place and organisation has a culture, whether we actively plan for it and shape it, or not. There always is a ‘way things happen around here’ – and changing that can be remarkably tricky. 

As a new start-up organisation, Peter Hyman and I tried really hard to focus on the kind of culture we wanted to create; innovative, developmental, effective, child-centred. And two years on, it is a great time to check in with the reality of that – and what it is really like to be a part of. 

The start-up phase of being, at times, hand-to-mouth and ‘making it up as you go along’ (an intrinsic part of being new – you have to make it up as there is nothing there..) can be hugely exciting and dynamic, with new ideas quickly and easily implemented. However, transitioning into a more ‘steady state’ is critical, and requires a different set of priorities. 

With every new person who has joined the team I have repeated the mantra – just because we are doing it this way doesn’t mean we want it done that way. An active encouragement to use their fresh eyes to look again at some of our ways of working anc actively challenging the culture where things could be better.

Our ‘culture club’ is looking at well-being, as we continue to all be working at home, as well as a range of priorities based on feedback from the team. I am keenly pushing the idea of ‘meet-free Mondays’ as a way to reduce screen time and encourage people to have time to focus, and prepare really well for meetings later in the week. Linked to that, I want us to challenge the 60 minute unit of time for most meetings – could we do it in 40 and then have time for follow ups and a comfort break before the next thing?


Big leadership adventure and culture

The Big Leadership Adventure is, as the name suggests, a programme focused on change and exploration. So our culture day focused on how we can create a culture of innovation in our organisations. It was powerful to ask the group for feedback on the culture they experience as part of the programme, and we compared that to the original set of design principles we used to shape the programme – was so interesting to see which parts have really translated into the experience of the leaders, and which ones less so.

We then welcomed guest speaker Zina Saeed, a legal underwriter in the London Insurance market. What on earth, you ask, does that have to do with culture? Fascinatingly, Zina’s evaluation of the culture of a business (and here we are talking about large legal and professional services companies) forms a critical basis of her risk assessment of them as a basis for their insurance policy. The extent to which staff feel safe to admit mistakes, ask for help, raise concerns and voice their opinion are all tangible evidence of a ‘safer’ culture, i.e. one where the company is less likely to get sued for malpractice. 

Likewise, on some of the big change movements including #metoo and Black Lives Matter, a failure to engage fully in the diversity and equality agendas equates to a tangible (and financial) risk to the business. This prompted discussion about metrics – what are the things we can measure which give an indication of the culture on these things? And what are the right questions to be asking?

We found this a fascinating lens to consider the issue; for big business, these are not ‘just’ issues of morals and values, but very serious financial ones too.

Zina summed this up in the phrase “tone from the top and mood from the bottom” – how in touch are leaders with what their employees are thinking and feeling, and how can they find out.

To move us on, and modelling the openness which I love about our programme, one leader, emailed me after the session:

“I really enjoyed hearing from Zina today.

Thanks for bringing to the surface her ‘tone from the top’ line. I missed it when she said it but it is a neat summary.

I thought the language of ‘the bottom’ might be a bit alienating though? Not sure I’d personally describe teachers as at the bottom. Maybe something like ‘tone from the top and mood from the masses’ might work better in schools?”

I absolutely loved this insight – and of course immediately fed it back to Zina – who loves it too, and has now amended her phrase to reflect the suggestion… And that’s how change happens.


A culture of innovation

I was delighted to introduce a prototype of a brand new tool we have developed at Big Education – our ‘culture mixing deck’.




We used this as a tool to reflect on our own organisational culture and notice the effect of different configurations. We are excited to develop this as a tool for other leaders to use as a way of thinking about their culture and what they may want to adjust.


Anti-racist culture

Finally, but critically importantly, we facilitated a session focused on leading an anti-racist culture in our organisations. This session was partly led by participants themselves and proved a powerful forum for discussion. 

We welcomed the challenge from some leaders about Big Education and the work we are doing in this area, and this has prompted some reflection from us. There are many aspects of work going on in Big Education schools, as well as our central team and programmes – but we recognise that we have not talked about it very much. The feedback we heard is that others would like to know what we are doing, and that the ‘talking about it’ is an important part of the work itself. 

So – we are pleased to respond to that challenge and to figure out what to do about it. Our initial idea is to commission a series of blogs and case studies from within the organisation to highlight and share the work that is going on – so watch this space – and thank you for the challenge for us to do more.

‘It is not hope that leads to action, but action that leads to hope’

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