King’s College London -
School of Neuroscience

Designing for culture as part of a reorganisation

A desire to positively shape culture as part of preparations for a reorganisation.

King’s College London – School of Neuroscience asked us to help them:

  1. Diagnose their culture – by collecting data and stories to discover what it was like to work there and identify opportunities to make it better.
  2. Catalyse real change – in partnership with a staff-led advisory group.

Their culture change project

King’s School of Neuroscience is one of the largest neuroscience schools in the UK. Based at King’s College London, their innovative research seeks to understand how our brains work in order to improve lives. The School has 700 staff including academics, researchers, post docs, PhD students and professional services colleagues.

The context
When we began working with them, the School was preparing for an academic reorganisation and a reshaping of professional services teams, because:

  • Over many years the School had amalgamated and absorbed several other departments and they weren’t deploying staff and resources effectively.
  • Some of their student courses were oversubscribed whilst others were undersubscribed.
  • Unlike the rest of King’s College London, administrative services were departmentally focused, which meant those people had no options for career progression.

Designing for culture

The Head of the School said, “I want to make this the best place to study or work in neuroscience in the world.” The School decided they would design for culture as part of their reorganisation.

The first step was to know what the culture was and how it was experienced across all job families and job roles.

This seemed like a really good opportunity to ask two questions:

  1. What is it like working here now?
  2. What do we want it to be like?

If they could reach a shared understanding of these two things, they could start designing consciously to get close to the place they wanted it to be.

What we did
In partnership with the School we co-designed the project from gathering and analysing the data in order to tell the story, to catalysing change and deploying interventions.

A phased approach
In the first phase, we formed an advisory group of staff from across the School, and designed and deployed a culture survey with them. We collected the data and had conversations at a School and departmental level, and produced a report to enable and catalyse leadership to act.

What happened
The data showed the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be, and what were the things that could help people.

What we found
Across the School we found that some departments had better cultures than others, though all had different strengths and weaknesses.

There was one department that seemed to have a much stronger culture. Although their structure was similar to other departments, the perception and experience of power and hierarchy was a lot flatter there. People could pop in to see the Head of Department any time or ask a question, and the Head would regularly be seen walking the corridors. It was a very friendly place. People were happy, they were doing well, and felt valued. They felt they belonged.

There were other departments where there was a gap between departmental leadership and the people doing the work. Elsewhere people were under a lot of pressure, and senior leaders weren’t always well supported.

In some areas there was a reduced sense of being valued, with less trust and confidence flowing between leadership and people doing the work.

Catalysing conversations and galvanising action

It became apparent through the process that there was a particular problem in one area. People weren’t previously aware of how acute it was and were now able to address it.

What we did
We met up with the advisory group regularly and supported them to design their own experiments and solutions to some of the issues that were affecting culture in different departments.

In supporting the advisory group, the members of it grew in agency and informal authority, they built their capability and their competence and gained a lot of confidence. They learned how to do it for themselves. And they delivered.

They did some work around behavioural expectations and processes to support people which informed the work of the university’s central OD department.

The work they did helped to break down silos between departments, to enable people to feel part of the wider School rather than feeling insular.

We also worked with both school and departmental leadership teams to identify strengths and areas for development.

Departmental teams then took responsibility for making local improvements and were held to account by both the staff led advisory group and School leadership.

Results and impact

Across the School there was visible and tangible evidence of change. Several professional services staff successfully moved to higher grade positions as they felt empowered and valued for their opinions.

The school was equipped with a much better understanding of its different strengths and weaknesses and with a framework for measuring progress.

The whole school had a clear understanding of the range of experiences and shared clear expectations for how things could be better.

The work helped to build a stronger foundation in advance of the introduction of the new Professional Services structure.

We helped to build capability and built cross-school networks to support improved communication and collaborative working.

We saw confidence and optimism grow, and belief that they could become an even better place to work.

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