“Our growth is hurting our culture.”
“We need more structure, but I’m afraid it will kill our culture.”
“Our culture is perfect. We don’t have processes and rules. We hire great people and weed out poor performers.”
Culture. When it’s good it’s great. And in today’s connected world (and thanks to sites like glassdoor), when it’s bad, it’s bad news.
What is culture, really? Your answer to this question will likely define the path culture will take in your organization.
Culture is an enigma. In my 25-plus years as an employee, consultant, manager, and leader, I’ve seen a few companies take a run at culture change; and even fewer are successful at it: from token gestures such as free food, games in the break room, and jeans Fridays – to years-long, staffed “culture change” initiatives that include road shows, music, and pyrotechnics (it’s true). Rarely – and even in the case of the million-dollar extravaganza – have I seen these efforts succeed. “Fixing” culture by traditional management methods reminds me of a week in Vegas: blow a bunch of money, do things I wouldn’t normally do, and walk away trying to figure out what just happened. Between culture work on these terms and Vegas – the odds of success are better in Vegas.
Culture is your company’s currency
Your company’s culture is part of your employer brand. In a full employment economy, culture is a major factor in recruiting top talent. Once your talent is in the door-it’s a major factor in retaining them, but the reason why might surprise you.
The culture we know through our traditional management lens is often described in terms of people, the work environment, and perks, to name a few. Take a minute and think about how you would describe your company’s culture to an outsider. What words come to mind? These things you describe would make most interview candidates feel pretty good about working at your company: jeans days, community service days, free lunches, quarterly happy hours. But what happens when it’s time to get the work done?
This is where the retention comes into play. My long-time mentor recently offered me a gold nugget, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. He said, “culture is the product of an organization’s system and processes, AND peoples’ attitudes about them.” Wait! What???
That moment – those words – completely upended my understanding of culture. Once the people equivalent of the Heisenberg Principle (one cannot know a particle’s position and velocity at the same time), culture became a perfectly defined element on my Periodic Table. So while he kept talking, my inner voice furiously ran through test cases:
- Consider a start-up business with ill-defined roles and responsibilities, no processes. The company grows – more and more effort required to get results. Employees become fire-fighters just to get the work done. Managers tighten budgets – “do more with less” – because profitability suffers. Culprit? Lack of focus on process. Impact on attitudes? Workforce is demoralized because they are powerless to improve the system.
- A successful company thinks it is successful because it eliminates processes and rules. Instead, focuses on hiring strong performers and weeding out poor performers. What happens? Competition among “top performers” creates intense focus on short-term results, which has long-term impact on company profitability. Culprit? No process, hyper focus on individual performance drives internal competition instead of collaborative focus on how to improve the system. Impact on attitudes? Workers are overworked and stressed – trying to figure out how to get ahead of their peers.
The traditional management framework doesn’t recognize culture for what it is. Culture is an outcome which is based on an organization’s processes and workers’ attitudes about those processes.
A Teenager’s Gym Clothes – a cautionary tale
Treating a symptom rarely, if ever, eliminates the root cause. When it does, it’s called luck. If you feel lucky, go to Vegas.
I offer for consideration my teenage son’s gym clothes. Here we find a stark reminder of the cost and futility of masking symptoms instead of addressing root cause. He brings his gym clothes home twice a year: after mid-terms and finals. It’s pretty unpleasant. When asked how he tolerates the stench during gym class, without batting and eye, he replies, “Axe.” Of course! Axe, the ultimate teenage boy body spray. Each eye-watering treatment only masks the stench of the layers that came before. Traditional culture programs are a lot like Axe. A free lunch here, a happy hour there, a ping-pong table in the break room. The momentary fog of delight fades away, and we’re left with the root cause – fermentation breaking down the fibers that could have evolved into a truly great culture.
Think big – start small
I’ve seen companies do big things in an attempt to manipulate culture. It never ends well. I’ve also helped companies work on small but highly impactful processes – and this work sparked the beginning of a culture shift. The former implies something “done to” the organization in hopes that workers would get on board the culture train. The latter requires management to provide workers with the tools and support they need to focus on improving the work. Workers come together to apply their knowledge and experience – and data – to improve processes so everyone wins. And so begins a virtuous cycle that creates an environment where workers feel they are learning, contributing to something of value, and they feel appreciated.
“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process…”
“…you don’t know what you’re doing.” The words of Dr. W. Edwards Deming are even more powerful today. I’ve been told many times over the years, “We don’t need process documentation. My team knows what to do.” When I hear this, I take to heart another of Dr. Deming’s well-known admonitions, which he learned from Ed Baker: “Don’t just do something – stand there” (observe, collect data, and learn—then act).
Double down on process
So let’s go back to where we started. Business growth. The need for, and fear of – structure. Purposefully avoiding process. In the absence of visible processes, much of how work gets done is left to chance. As companies grow and (in the absence of process) focus turns to individual performance as a way to “get things done” – culture will suffer. Don’t let Vegas odds dictate your organization’s culture currency. Double down with a focus on process and you’ll beat the house every time.