Organisational culture: Lessons from Parkrun

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The HR team should be able to explain with total clarity the unwritten constitution of the organisation

Every Saturday morning, alongside several hundred others, I line up for my weekly Parkrun around Sherwood Forest. Parkrun organises free, weekly, timed, five-kilometre runs open to all abilities. Participants run, jog, walk, crawl with a hangover, or even get pushed around parks worldwide, from San Francisco in the West (surprisingly flat) to Singapore in the East (unsurprisingly humid).

While taking part one thing always strikes me. Despite being completely operated by volunteers, taking place in totally different environments, having an inconsistent set of runners and a multitude of languages to deal with, every Parkrun worldwide somehow ‘feels’ the same. They’re inclusive, welcoming, non-judgemental, encouraging and engaging. Everyone competes individually then collectively gets together to celebrate their result.

There’s also the post-Parkrun coffee ritual, carried out at every event all around the world. Whether in a local café or the nearest Starbucks the routine stays the same. It’s as much a part of the concept as the weekly celebration of people completing their first run; or those finishing their 50th, 100th or 250th run receiving coloured T-shirts. The colours dotted throughout the field act as powerful symbols that create a sense of identity within the Parkrun community. This is added to by other coloured shirts showing people’s ‘home’ run in vivid apricot.

Those of you who have got this far may have noticed that what I am describing is the culture of a Parkrun.

Rituals, routines and symbols are key parts of the cultural web, my favourite academic model for looking at and changing an organisation’s culture. Developed by Johnson and Scholes in 1992, it provides a toolkit for understanding the assumptions and practices that sit intertwined within any people strategy, based on the six elements of stories, rituals and routines, symbols, organisational structure, control systems and power structures.

It is easy to populate the entire cultural web with an unambiguous description of Parkrun that is familiar to every one of the millions of runners taking part. Despite a ‘workforce’ that is deployed each week in a completely self-selected way the control systems, organisation and power structures are passed from volunteer to volunteer, week to week, ensuring the consistency of experience at every event.

As HR professionals we are the guardians of culture at our organisations and so we too should be able to describe our culture in a way that is familiar to all employees. But too many just say we’re ‘proud’ of our culture.

Proud we may be, but we must understand exactly what it is we are proud of. Whether by using the cultural web or another preferred methodology, the HR team should be able to explain with total clarity the unwritten constitution of the organisation.

Our workplaces are subject to complex ongoing change and yet in far too many organisations HR is not involved in change projects. And when they are it’s only to deliver the technical people changes around contracts or hours.

Every change programme – whether it be IT, marketing, legal or financial – will affect the culture of the organisation. Which means HR must be at the heart of the conversation highlighting exactly how the programme will affect the culture.

This is one of those often-overlooked opportunities that helps HR demonstrate tangible value and moves us from functional to strategic. It is a piece of work that gets our cross-functional colleagues knocking on our door for help rather than us needing to force our way in.

Once we have a clear view of culture our organisations will be full of engaged, high-performing, willing participants who will help each other over every bump in their career journey; just as Parkrun participants help each other over the physical bumps and stumps along the route.

So go to Parkrun this weekend. And while you’re there compare the culture to your own. Is your organisation as amazing? Do you even know?

And if you’re at Sherwood Pines I’ll see you for a coffee…

Andrew Stephenson is former people director at Lookers and DFS Furniture and a trustee of Citizens Advice

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