During the first half of 2014, I trained for and ran two half-marathons, back-to-back. This was a huge achievement for me as for the first time in my life, I didn’t get out of breath just from climbing stairs. Finally, I had become the holy grail of “fit”.

Shortly after the second half-marathon, I moved house. On moving day, I got up bright and early to load the crammed boxes into the van.  However, as I went to carry the first box, I found I couldn’t lift it. But I was so fit, I’d just run two half-marathons – what happened?! Well, it turns out, not all exercise is created equal. Although I had strong legs and stamina, my arms had not been trained at all, so I was weak as a kitten in my upper body. I was not what is known as functionally fit.

Functional fitness is the concept of linking exercise back to everyday movements found in daily life so that you can sense and respond to any external force or challenge that may come your way. For example, lifting boxes, running for the bus and dodging pedestrians.

This is the same type of strength needed in organisations if they are to thrive in the 21st century. Large corporations have traditionally been good at developing the structures and practices to enable efficient and predictable results, but this is the equivalent of just jogging on a treadmill every day. This worked when external conditions were stable and could be predicted. But what happens if you have to run outside, on unknown terrain, at varying speeds and with potential obstacles? Jogging on a treadmill doesn’t prepare you for a more uncertain and complex environment.

You must encourage and nurture certain attributes in order to have a culture that can thrive in unpredictable conditions. As part of our recent Digital Transformation Barriers Report, we have analysed best practice cultures and drawn on our experience with clients and our own teams to define these. These are the five muscles of your culture that must be exercised so that your organisation is functionally fit, and primed to respond to changing market dynamics:

  1. Customer-driven. Find ways to put your customer at the centre of everything you do. Create open communication channels and information flows between those who create the products or services for customers and those who interact with customers, so that these insights can be used to improve the customer experience.
  2. Innovative. Actively encourage idea generation from all employees. Make customer feedback visible to everyone so that potential improvements can be spotted and acted upon quickly. Implement mechanisms for innovation funds and discretionary spending over rigid annual planning.
  3. Open. Always favour and promote knowledge sharing over gate-keeping information as a source of authority and influence. Enable ways for employees to work transparently at all levels, sharing their sense-making, decisions, and work in progress wherever possible. Find and take opportunities to include a wider set of stakeholders during decision-making.
  4. Passion & Purpose. Codify your organisations stated purpose such that all employees can align behind it. Embed this motivation into hiring processes, seeking to attract talent based on shared passions and goals as well as skills and experience. Use your purpose as a mechanism to motivate employees.
  5. Accountable. I’ve written on accountability before, and it can be thought of as your core strength foundation to all the other cultural attributes you wish to develop. Give employees the autonomy to take responsibility for their actions and reward when they ‘own it’, even if it doesn’t go according to plan. This can be the toughest muscle to build, but the most powerful for organisations, when given focus and attention.

If you are in the process of attempting to manage or change the culture of your organisation to facilitate wider digital transformation, these are some areas of focus you should have in your sights. Try taking our Quantified Org Diagnostic Test, where you can score these five Culture Muscles and get personalised recommendations on how to start building functional fitness in your company.

And of course, if you need a personal trainer, just get in touch.