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Fieldnotes

Pay attention to the olives

by Simon Myers – May 2020

As young organisations grow, the culture that was a key part of their early success often becomes diluted. This can be through an influx of new staff, increasingly remote founders and new processes and objectives imposed by outside money (yes private equity guys, we're talking about you).

You can see this cultural shift in many customer facing businesses across different sectors, but perhaps most obviously in your favourite casual dining chain. Your first few visits some months ago now were a delight. Good food, efficient friendly service, clean table tops, all at a reasonable price. You went back recently and it was disappointing.

Everything looked the same but small unannounced changes had turned an enjoyable eating out experience into something merely to be endured. Everyone’s got their favourite symptom of a restaurant culture in decline, from the short menu of 8 dishes that has ballooned to 18 plus options, the minimalist tables now cluttered with flyers pushing particular ‘specials’, the waiter who knows less about the food than your 12 year old daughter.

The shared unspoken assumptions of what good looks like and what bad looks like for the customer and the business start to fray across the organisation. The intuitive understanding that has up until now provided the permission for individuals to make proactive small decisions in the moment starts to break apart.

Arguments, confusion, mis-steps and a sub-par customer experience are the result. The shared pride in the delivery of something special is undermined and resentment builds up.

Does this decline have to be fatal? Of course not. Not sure where to start? Here are 3 observations from previous projects that we believe ring true and helpful to bear in mind as you re-tune your internal culture to better support organisational ambition.

  1. The leadership has to recognise that a proactive and empowered culture is their ‘special sauce’ (yes appropriate culinary metaphor). Their job is to convince their peers and investors of this. They don't have to have the answers though. The frontline staff usually do that bit very well. The leadership then has to listen and be willing to endorse an explicit ‘reset’ if needed around what is important and what isn’t.

  2. Stitching together the different parts of the organisation and different segments of the employee base (e.g. new arrivals/long time comrades, front of house/back office, young/old) does require careful analysis of what their particular organisational bugbears are. What do they need from the organisation to do a great job? Rushing to write up a generic set of values (RESPECT, INTEGRITY, DRIVE) is not recommended.

  3. The restatement of certain principles can have a galvanising effect on staff behaviours and engagement if backed up with some overdue decisions around issues that need resolving. These can bring back confidence into the organisation that there is a shared vision and the leadership is not willing to compromise on what most employees believe make their organisation special.

In one restaurant chain we worked with, the quality of the olives – where they came from and how they were grown – became a litmus test of whether the leadership were serious about living up to a shared set of principles or not. In this case, the superior independent olive growing provider survived and we believe that despite some seeing this as a small feat, not compromising on something critical to the business culture has contributed to this restaurant chain's continuing success.