Tuning organisational cultures

Dr Nick Udall
5 min readNov 18, 2020

Welcome to my new blog.

I’ve never blogged before. I don’t really like being visible; I much prefer being behind the scenes. I have to force myself each year to give keynote talks to audiences in different parts of the world. When I was young, I dreaded crits at design school (meetings where you shared your latest work and received critical feedback from your teachers in front of your peers). I always did my best to hide at the back of classrooms and groups in the hope I didn’t get picked to speak.

I didn’t go on to design products for a living as I quickly become disillusioned with the design world. It frustrated me how designers thought they had a monopoly on the creative process, when, from my lowly experience, they didn’t seem to be any more creative than the next person — they just had a craft or discipline through which to channel their creativity.

I also had an aversion to the creative process being reduced to an ideation-based methodology (brainstorming if you will), where volume is the name of the game, in the hope you’ll get to two or three good ideas at the end of it to sell. This was counter to my lived experience of studying Zen for many years, which was about walking in the world in a co-creative way and catching moments and insights that rewired and repatterned you.

This is how I became interested in the phenomenon of creative insight and breakthrough, leading me to do a PhD in creativity, consciousness and community. This enabled me to meet some amazing people ­– in business, the sciences, psychology and philosophy, and education — and opened the door to different communities of practice, both ancient and modern, in which I became a hungry learner.

What became apparent was that my interest lay in ‘practice’ — the ‘how’ of creative insight and breakthrough. In particular, how you design and hold someone (or many people) through a process and on a journey towards moments of creative enlightenment (as opposed to spiritual enlightenment). In these moments, you create something new, different and other than yourself (an innovative output). But these moments also have another important dimension, in that they surprise you. This is how disbelief (‘I didn’t know I could do that.’) expands your existing belief system. It shifts you, such that you are unable to think what you thought before. Your worldview reorders right in front of your eyes, and you can only now move forward. In fact, you are pulled forward by the experience itself. And the whole experience, or mini-peak experience if you will, is also deeply and intrinsically rewarding — another important factor in the equation of change and transformation, and in managing organisational resistance.

This is how I moved from designing products to designing breakthrough experiences, cultures of innovation and transformation journeys — and have been doing so with C-Suite leaders since the age of 23.

I’ve now been designing, curating and tuning teams and cultures for almost 30 years and have had the privilege of working with global corporations all over the world. The more complex and diverse the organisation, the more interesting it is. In fact, I always say it’s much easier to innovate from the complex, and much harder from the simple.

Over this time, I’ve come to believe that these purpose-driven, time-rich, multi-speed, psychologically safe, highly adaptive and peak-performing cultures of innovation are the holy grail of organisational life.

And, in a world where the need for change, innovation and transformation couldn’t be more acute, building these cultures has become perhaps the most pressing leadership challenge of our time. Especially if we want to innovate our way to more meaningful, creative and sustainable futures, let alone solve some of the super-wicked problems of our time.

I’ve also come to learn that these cultures manifest like flames when the conditions are right. They take years to build and days to snuff out.

These cultures operate at a different creative frequency to most conventional cultures — an energetic ‘hum’ if you will, a resonance or vibration, where people feel on purpose and in flow. When you come into relationship with these cultures, you instantly feel their purpose and passion and get pulled along by them.

My own passion, even obsession, with organisational culture has become more than a job or vocation. And, while I believe I can decode the enabling and disabling meta hallmarks of a culture, within minutes of engaging with one, I am way more interested in the ‘how’ of tuning a culture ie. how to help complex organisations tune into their core purpose, and their true strategic differentiators; how to increase their ability to ride the highs and lows of the creative-process (and innovate at every level at scale); and, how to grow their capacity to be deeply human, enabling the best of their people, peers and partners to turn up every day.

One of the most frustrating and ironically most interesting aspects of the work is all the things, people and politics that get in the way of building these types of cultures. As the old adage goes — ‘the work that gets in the way of the work is the work.’

So, I suppose this is a long way of saying that it feels like the time is right to share a few things my colleagues and I in nowhere have learnt along the way, as well as what I and we are musing on, questioning, exploring and experimenting with in the now and here.

Maybe these blogs will just be a good way for me to capture and order my thoughts. Maybe they will be useful in some way to a few people. But it feels like a good way of being true to one of the cornerstones of a culture of innovation: to regularly ‘share your work in progress’.

So here goes…

— — — — —

Some of the things I’m interested in sharing thoughts, tools and practices on in the coming weeks and months…

  • How our COVID world has highlighted the difference between a core purpose and a strapline purpose
  • Why soundbite leadership is becoming dangerous and distracting
  • Why leadership development never delivers culture change
  • The 8 dysfunctions of organistional cultures
  • The things that reveal the type of culture you have — and how to flip them to unlock your culture
  • Stop talking about culture and start doing culture
  • The things that typically and frustratingly get in the way
  • Why we have to pay even more attention to culture now — because in a COVID world it’s eroding every day that we’re not together
  • Why ‘more digital’ also needs to be ‘more human’
  • You can’t shift anything systemic without core energy
  • How most C-Suite leaders still struggle to communicate well
  • Why cultures and eco-systems of innovation can only be called forward by evocative leaders and creative-catalysts







Dr Nick Udall

CEO of nowhere. Former Chair of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. Author. Keynote speaker. Creative-Catalyst.