Culture a primal force
This article has it’s start in a discussion about culture that occured during the MIT Entrepreneur Development Program 2013. Professor Bill Aulet stated something along the following line:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast and operations excellence for lunch and everything else for dinner“
point being that culture is one of the strongest forces in an organisation. It can be a make or break factor for both startups and established companies. It becomes crucial when market conditions change so that a strategy shift is needed. If that strategy shift is not within the cultural norms of an organization it has a very difficult job being adapted and executed.
The origin of the quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” was coined by Peter Drucker but the above extended quote is probably all Bill Aulet. Just to clarify that main point of the article before we jump into it. Culture, Strategy and Operational Excellence all are important and can be critical successfactors but culture is critical for doing shifts and pivots of strategy as well as executing strategy and my goal is to help you play a better game of “organizational culture”
Culture on a practical level
What exactly is culture? Some people defined culture to be everything including the kitchen sink like the following:
“Culture is a balanced blend of human psychology, attitudes, actions, and beliefs that combined create either pleasure or pain, serious momentum or miserable stagnation.”
This type of definition often derails analysis and further action, it can be better with a definition that is actionable and that gets to the core of the matter. One such definition is presented below. My brother and collegue Lars Ishäll whom is a organizational psychologist has used the following definition successfully when working with clients.
“In order to get things done think about culture as the behaviours you would observe (when none of the managers would be present).”
This statement has a couple of great points:
- Operationalize your view of culture. Focusing on people behaviours instead of beliefs helps you remove both guesswork and interpretation bias from the equation and keeps you focused on real tangible things i.e. “What people do”. This is a lot easier than guessing about peoples motivations and beliefs. In fact you should only look at behaviours of people and never start guessing about motivations. Behaviour analysis should include language used by people in the organisation.
- “…When none of the managers would be present.” this statement should be understood as when no one whom can berate or punish me would be present what will my behaviour be then? An example would be as follows: “A truck driver spills oil on a client site and there is absolutely no one saw him do it and he would not be connected to the oil spill if he left immediately. What he would do is extremely telling of the strenght and adaptation of the company culture that is writte down as “Our client is #1 and we always do the right thing by our clients”
Now we have a practical way of analysing and seeing the culture of a group or an organization but how is culture createdl?
How culture is created
If we view manifestation of culture as the collective behaviours of people in the organisation how is it then created?
Culture and the resulting behaviours are created by two main type of rules that the organisation enforces by various means;
- Negative rules – “do this and you will be fined”
- Reinforcing rules – “You have to do this in order to be up for a promotion”, “We need to do this in order to be a successful company”
Most often the company values are of the latter type; “simple solutions preferred”, “always put the customer in center”, “excellence is our motto”
Values are almost always reinforcing rules since they deal with growth of the organization and are important in letting everyone in the company know if they follow them they are doing great. In one way reinforcing rules is the cultural gas pedal. Negative rules are often found in the “New person package” from HR. Examples “You shall not use drugs in your workplace”, “you shall not harass anyone…”
These rules together build up the culture garden of an organisation. How the garden will look in the end is what the managers and keypeople cultivate and nurture the garden.
Think or all these rules as plants of the culture garden, those plants that the managers enforce, tell about and highlight will grow and thrive and will be the salient factors in determining the overall feel of the culture garden or your company culture.
The way to nurture these plants of the garden is by rewarding, punishing and highlighting behaviour. Creating company heroes, story telling, company rituals all are like watering those plants and once the garden has grown enough people will expect and assume certain type of behaviours from other people in the company.
In keeping with the garden analogy the first plants you place in your garden gets the prominent spots, access to all sunlight and nutrients from the soil and their roots can grow deep and wide.
Culture gets set in beginnings regardless of if you do it explicitely or not
When setting the culture of an organisation you will have the best opportunity in the beginning of a organisations lifecycle, if you do not do it other people will bring in rules based on their mental models about what should be expected. If these are wrong for the organisation you need to go through the process of tearing down and removing the old plants that have grown to size and replant with new ones. If you find your self in need of changing your culture and with that your value statements you better be prepared to go through a process of removing the old values and figuring out what new values you should use that serve you better. But this process needs to happen with other managers /leadership and key influencers in the organisation or you will not be able to make it stick and in large old organisations i fails more often than not.
Subcultures – the secret gardener in your culture garden
Once you have set your values and all associated rules you might discover that someone else has been in your garden and planted trees in a neglected part of the garden. You will need to assess how these new trees fit into your garden are they complimentary or do they strangle the other plants around them?
Subcultures can be bad or good
First we must recognize that an organisation has many different subcultures within the whole organization and the size of the organization determines how many subcultures can be carried in the organisation.
These subcultures can be either aligned with the organisation goals then those cultures are perceived good or as necessary nuiscence. When the subculture is not aligned with overall organisation the subculture is perceived as distracting, harmful or bad depending on size of misalignment.
Subcultures are often created by one or a few persons working inside the group as a result of the existing group dynamics or outside influence that can change the group dynamics.
Next part of the article will focus on ways to set culture or change an existing culture.
- Please let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.