14 – What can a culture survey, an organisational self assessment, and your Executive’s risk appetite tell you?

In local government, we like to survey our culture and develop plans to move from the current culture to the preferred culture. It is a very idealistic exercise. In Human Synergistics’ terms, the target culture is often highly constructive and devoid of the competitive and avoidance behaviours currently evident. Typically, the culture of a council in Australia will operate on the basis of ‘keep your head down and fly under the radar, if things go wrong blame someone else, and if there is no one to blame say you were just following instructions’. In a more competitive culture it starts with blame.

An organisational self assessment (the starting point for using the Australian Business Excellence Framework) will probably reveal an organisation where the drivers for the activities of the organisation that fare the best during the assessment will be those that have a legislative compulsion behind them or that have been developed in response to a problem that has a significant consequence for failure.   The focus will be on compliance, not organisational strategy, innovation and customer or community value. This is understandable because councils do have lots of legislated responsibilities and accountabilities that have consequences for non compliance.

Now to the last and, I think, the most interesting piece of evidence – the risk appetite of top management (the Executive). This is interesting because it often isn’t documented and when it is, the context is usually the preparation of a risk management plan and the knowledge isn’t used to reflect on the decision making of the Executive, the organisation they have created, or its culture.   Leaders shape the organisation through what they say and do. If they have a low appetite for risk, especially in a sector that is inherently risk averse, this will be reflected in their decision making. What can you expect to see as a result?

  • A conventional organisational structure that emphasises functional accountability and avoids the risks associated with a focus on cross-functional processes.
  • Organisational systems that are controlling to reduce risk and increase compliance because there is no reward, and potential sanctions, for doing otherwise.  The Executive makes the decisions and policies in accordance with their risk appetite.
  • A culture where people avoid risk and don’t make decisions or just follow the rules rather than take risks to ensure that value is created.

So, if you are wondering why you work in an organisation where there are dozens of forms that need countersigning by each level of authority, where decisions are increasingly being made by the Executive, and your culture surveys keep telling you that you are big on avoidance, maybe you should enquire about your Executive’s risk appetite.

Posted by Whistler

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